Scottish Labour must reconnect with its grassroots, and re-engage them with UK politics, or perish, writes Peter Jones
Where to begin with what’s wrong with the Scottish Labour party and how to fix it? It is in an awful mess, not just in Scotland, but in the rest of Britain too. So much so, that the first question should be whether we are witnessing a party in its death throes and that, actually, nothing can be done except to draw a veil over the unseemly blood-letting, and move on.
That’s because Labour’s propensity for in-fighting exceeds that of the other three main parties by a mile. Its structure of different tribes with competing interests – MPs, MSPs, councillors, trade unions – all of which put the ordinary member’s interests into the shade, plus its perpetual ideological agonies between leftism and centrism, look designed for internal warfare rather than winning external hearts and minds. The chances of the various groups and factions preferring to engage each other in death grips should not be under-estimated.
But let me point something out. In terms of absolute numbers of votes cast, 2015’s tally of 707,000, while disastrous compared with 1.03 million won in 2010, was not Scottish Labour’s worst result. The Holyrood election of 2011, when Labour secured only 630,000 constituency votes, was. In retrospect, that result should have been the benchmark against which Jim Murphy’s leadership was tested.
Of course, it has not been. But it is an indication that there is a possibility of life after near-death on 7 May. And while the window of opportunity for revival is remarkably short, as there is less than a year until the 2016 Holyrood elections, the target to achieve a revival is not unattainable. Between 700,000 to 750,000 votes would be a respectable result and, while not a winning total, enough to deprive the SNP of their Scottish parliamentary majority.
But before that can happen, Scottish Labour has to do two very important things. First, it has to restructure itself to destroy the playground that it has provided for folk on the Left to engage in internecine struggle. It has to, as its lone MP Ian Murray advocates, move to one-member-one-vote in leadership elections and give its grassroots membership real power in the party’s day-to-day workings and policy formulation.
This isn’t just a matter of basic democracy. Scottish politics is all about what Scottish people want. Clearly, there has been a massive loss of belief in the ability or will of politicians in London of all stripes to deliver what Scotland needs. It makes no sense for any political party calling itself Scottish to be in thrall to any London-based power-broker, whether a trade union leader or a billionaire.
And why should anybody join a political party and expect to have a say in it when one union general secretary, Len McCluskey, seems to be the most powerful voice in it? Or indeed when that voice is advocating a politics that might have been relevant 40 years ago, but now is just one part, and not a very important part, of a much more multidimensional politics?
And just as much as that means moving on from the 1970s, so it also means moving on from the Blairite labourism of the 1990s. Much of Tony Blair’s success was founded on the near-collapse of the Conservatives – their surrendering of economic competence, decay into corrupt practices, and absurd battling over the European Union.
None of that applies in modern Scotland. The SNP is seen by a majority of voters as economically competent, to be as clean as any party can be reasonably expected, and to be united. It has weaknesses, but when compared to Labour before and after 7 May, it looks footsure and impregnable.
This leads on to the second essential thing Scottish Labour has to do – to define its public role in life. About a year before the election, I was surprised to hear a senior Labourite say in private: “I don’t know what we stand for any more.” Much the same comment has been made by many others since the election.
If its public representatives don’t know what they stand for, why should the electorate be expected to vote for them? And of course on 7 May, a third of the people who had voted Labour five years previously, deserted. Why not, when there is the SNP also offering social justice and everything else that Labour has claimed to stand for?
This is not a matter of Labour abandoning its historic role; rather it is about finding new ways to express it. It is about engaging with community groups, special interest organisations, voluntary groups – that myriad of organisations outside trade unions which were energised by the referendum – and finding ways to empower them.
The talk of needing to find ways to meet people’s aspirations isn’t just about individual hopes, it is also about the goals of collective organisations which, in Scotland, is a rather more important dimension of politics than it is south of the Border. Power doesn’t just need to be decentralised from Westminster, but also from Edinburgh. Labour, which has collective action in its DNA, should be able to find real purpose in that.
Beyond these two foundations of a true individual-based membership structure and a new, clear, political purpose, there are two other essential tasks. One is to set the party on a proper Scottish footing, with its leadership having clear autonomy over policy and responsibility for Scottish organisation and fund-raising. The election result self-evidently showed that a prime concern of Scottish voters is to have politicians at Westminster who will stand up for them first and last. Labour cannot aspire to that so long as it has a Scottish structure matching former Scottish leader Johann Lamont’s “branch office” description.
The second is to match the SNP’s constant independence campaign with a constant campaign for the Union. Nearly half of voters think not just that the Union is of no benefit to them, but actively works against their interests. If Labour is to make a comeback, then it also has to win back support for the Union.
If Labour is to make a comeback that is, for in its present condition I’m not convinced that it will do. And if it doesn’t, independence becomes much more likely.