It's her party and she'll cry if she wants to (you would cry too if it happened to you)
IF WENDY Alexander is under any illusions about the task facing her in trying to reinvigorate her party, she should cast her mind back to last year's Scottish Labour conference in Aviemore when Tony Blair arrived to give his speech.
The 650-seat auditorium was only about two-thirds full because not enough Labour constituency delegates had bothered to turn up. Stallholders and exhibitors had to be brought in to make the venue look full.
And even those Labour delegates who were there hardly gave the impression of a vibrant party on its way forward: the majority of the audience were union representatives - and they were overwhelmingly male, middle-aged and overweight, a clear signal of a moribund, static and stagnant party.
Soon after that, Alex Salmond addressed his party in the impressive new conference centre in Perth.
What was significant was not just the size of the audience - although at 2,500 it dwarfed the paltry crowd at Aviemore - nor was it the fact that SNP activists were queuing at the door to make sure they got a seat, although that was impressive too. No, what was really important was the make-up of the audience.
The usual, middle-aged party hacks were there, but they had been joined by hundreds of young people and dozens of pensioners too; ordinary people, not stale old union stalwarts - a real cross-section of Scottish society. The very people, in fact, who used to be attracted to the Labour Party.
And this is the crux of Ms Alexander's problem. To reinvigorate the Scottish Labour Party, Ms Alexander has to win back the Scots who have deserted Labour - some have headed towards the SNP, some to the Liberal Democrats and some to apathy and disillusionment with politics in general.
Labour Party membership in Scotland is down 30 per cent since 2000, dropping from 26,500 to 18,500 in seven years. At the same time, SNP membership has risen: in 2003, the Nationalists had 9,450 members, but today the party has 13,585 - a rise of 44 per cent in four-and-a-half years.
At the elections in May this year, Scottish Labour lost 161 councillors, while the SNP doubled its number of councillors from 181 to 363. Much of this was down to the new transferable-vote system, but it still means many more SNP activists on the ground and far fewer Labour ones.
In 1999, Scottish Labour had 56 MSPs and 56 MPs; now they have 46 MSPs and 40 MPs - again partly due to other factors, including boundary changes.
But the big impact of Labour's defeat in May this year was the loss of the Civil Service back-up which the party had started to take for granted. Now the party has had to employ researchers to draft policies and construct arguments, jobs which used to be done by civil servants for the Labour Executive.
So the party in Scotland has lost members, activists, councillors, MPs, MSPs, government support and, most important of all, voters. It is Ms Alexander's job to get them back.
Professor John Curtice, from Strathclyde University, said: "One of Wendy Alexander's main challenges is to bring back the younger members, and that is a problem the Labour Party has in general. The party has lost a lot of the members who were attracted by Blair. The size of the Scottish membership is poor and they have to try to reverse that."
Jackie Baillie, Labour MSP for Dumbarton, said what was needed was a combination of a reform of the party structure and new policies. She said: "The key to all that is reconnecting with the people and you do that by listening. It's not so much about a conversation, as others may be doing, it's very much about listening and finding out what people's hopes and aspirations are."
A party measures its appeal in three ways: the money it generates in donations; the votes it secures; and, crucially, by the number of activists willing to give their time and effort for free, just to help their candidates get elected.
For years, Labour's real problem of a fall-off in the number of activists has been obscured by relative success in the other two areas: union donations have continued to pour in, apparently immune from changes to the party's political fortunes, and it has continued to win the bulk of seats in its heartlands.
But even these superficial successes have been deceptive. Labour won 40 out of the 59 Scottish seats at the general election, once again a great result. But underneath, the ground had shifted - constituencies which Labour used to win with thumping margins were taken with greatly reduced majorities.
In Edinburgh, Labour holds Edinburgh South with a majority of just 400. The majority in Edinburgh North and Leith is down to 2,000, while in Edinburgh East, a previously impregnable 12,000 majority was halved.
And this is where the activists - or lack of them - come in. The Scottish Labour Party now cannot simply target some seats and forget about others, as it used to do, confident that the heartland constituencies were already in the bag come election time. It will have to spend time and effort on more seats, spreading local resources even more thinly.
So Ms Alexander needs to build up the membership base and, from that, inspire a new generation of activists.
And for that, she will need a big idea or two. Scottish Labour has not really had a big idea since 1997, when the twin pillars of devolution and "we're not the Tories" served the party well. But with the SNP now well ahead with the "vision thing" and appearing imaginative and innovative in policy terms, the Scottish Labour Party needs something radical and new to take on the Nationalists.
Iain Gray, an MSP and a former minister under Henry McLeish, said there had to be a full policy review and added that he wanted to see a greater emphasis on affordable housing. Mr Gray said getting the party back into a winnable position again would be a "big task" and central to it would be the ability to "reach out to people throughout Scotland".
He added: "The party feels it has been on the back foot for some weeks now. When Wendy launched her leadership bid last week, I think it gave us a real sense of getting off the back foot."
Everybody in Scottish Labour seems to agree with what is needed: fresh ideas; new policies; a more responsive party structure; more involvement from all parts of the party from all areas of the country; more members; more money; good new candidates and some kind of autonomy from London.
Coming to that conclusion is the easy bit. Implementing it will be much harder.
TIMETABLE FOR LEADERSHIP
WENDY Alexander has to submit her leadership nomination papers by noon today.
The party's procedures committee will then meet to ensure the nomination is valid. Ms Alexander will then go on to meet Labour Party activists across the country.
The procedures committee will next set out a timetable for the leadership process, which is likely to be concluded in mid-September, in time for Ms Alexander to be installed as leader ahead of the UK party conference.
The final stage will involve a meeting of MSPs and Scottish party leaders to ratify Ms Alexander as leader of the Labour group at Holyrood.
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Tuesday 21 May 2013
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