Andrew Whitaker: UK Labour must address Scotland

IF the British party fails to address events north of the border it may never regain lost ground, says Andrew Whitaker

Jim Murphy and Ed Milibands successors must make a unified push if Labour is to be revived. Picture: Hemedia

SCOTTISH Labour’s ongoing crisis following its near wipe-out at Westminster and the loss of its seventh leader under devolution in Jim Murphy have made it very hard for the party north of the border to focus at all on the contest at UK level to succeed Ed Miliband. Last weekend Murphy finally succumbed to intense internal pressure for his resignation, and the ongoing uncertainty about his successor has meant Labour’s UK leadership election has barely registered on the Richter scale in Scotland.

But the choice of Labour’s next UK leader could have far-reaching consequences and be pivotal in determining whether there is any prospect of a revival for the party in Scotland at all.

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With very good reason, the four declared candidates in the contest to take over from Miliband as Labour’s UK leader have instantly sought to focus their campaigns on how the party can win back voters who deserted it in this month’s election.

Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall and Mary Creagh, despite their varying campaign pitches, all appear to understand that Labour has to reach out to voters in areas of the UK where it lost on 7 May if the party is to be in with a shout of ousting the Tories in 2020.

The four declared candidates and shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt, who as of this writing had not turned his expression of interest in leading Labour into a formal campaign, have rightly made much of how the party needs to take seats from the Tories in the south, Midlands and parts of northern England to win next time.

Whoever wins Labour’s contest to succeed Miliband will be under no illusion about the scale of the uphill struggle facing the party ahead of 2020 following a result on 7 May that was an unmitigated disaster.

Catastrophic though that day was for Labour, suggestions that the party is in the same position as it was in 1983 and 1987 are possibly slightly overdoing things, as the Tories held whopping majorities of over 100 seats in the Commons.

It’s also worth remembering that at the 1983 election, Labour had a share of the vote that was little over two per cent higher than the SDP-Liberal alliance and was on course for extinction, according to some commentators of the day.

Having said that, as things stand there is very little to hold on to for Labour and even though David Cameron’s overall majority of 12 is similar in size to that secured by John Major’s 21 seats at the 1992 election, the near meltdown in Scotland means there is a much nastier sting in the tail than after the last outright defeat 23 years ago.

There is already concern in Labour’s ranks at Holyrood that the loss of Scottish voices in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) at Westminster will result in whoever succeeds Mr Miliband inadvertently viewing Scotland as if it is already independent.

With just one Labour MP from a constituency in Scotland now sitting at Westminster – Ian Murray from Edinburgh South – it is strikingly obvious that the voice of Scottish Labour will be much weaker.

To lose a bloc of 40 Scottish MPs, which in the past included political giants such as John Smith, Robin Cook and Donald Dewar, is beyond devastating for Labour.

With former shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander among Labour’s high-profile casualties, the situation of having the shadow cabinet in the Commons, other than the Scotland Office portfolio, filled by MPs from south of the Border creates a very real issue at best and a crisis at worst.

Shadow Scottish secretary Ian Murray is an effective and astute politician, who would be on any Labour frontbench on the strength of his performance in the last parliament alone. But with pressure on the new Labour leader to speak to Middle England, Essex man and Worcester woman and whichever clichéd swing voter group party focus groups and internal pollsters tell the party it needs to hone in on to win again, there is always the danger that Scotland could end up not being at the top of the new Labour leader’s agenda for a revival,

An absolutely rampant SNP, showing no signs of faltering, and suggestions that Scottish Labour should be fully independent of the UK party could mean that the lost support in Scotland becomes a write-off for Mr Miliband’s successor.

Of course, it will be very much a case of pressure from all sides for the new Labour leader, with the conundrum of how to recapture support from voters who backed Labour during its three successive election triumphs in 1997, 2001 and 2005, but deserted it a fortnight ago.

With the results from 7 May showing that the Tories would still have had an overall majority at Westminster even without the SNP’s sweeping gains from Labour, it may well be that whoever is elected as the new leader will be tempted to not view Scotland as the smoothest road back to power.

It’s perhaps worth asking how many of the 40 seats the SNP took from Labour will be placed high up on the party’s top 150 target constituencies across the UK it needs to take to be in with a chance of winning in 2020.

All of which will send a chill down the spine of many a Scottish Labour member as to how and if the party can climb out of its crisis.

Above all, Labour members north and south of the border must retain an open mind in the party’s leadership election and cast their vote for whichever candidate they believe would have the best chance of securing an election win in 2020.

But on the evidence so far at least, two of the candidates, Liz Kendall and Mary Creagh, have made Blairite-style pitches that appear to be too simplistic and which, as Labour MSP Neil Findlay suggested, would “go down like a bucket of vomit” in Scotland. The current frontrunner, Andy Burnham, appears to be tuned into the challenge facing Labour in Scotland, although for him, and in fairness Kendall, Creagh and the Inverness-born Cooper, it’s very early days to gauge their real grasp of the crisis.

All candidates will be keen to make their pitch to those who deserted Labour and will also be anxious not to get too caught up in the internal strife gripping Scottish Labour.

However, a campaign launch – or even a non-tokenistic major campaign event north of the border by any one of the leadership contenders or all of them – could go some way to showing the new Labour leader will not leave the party in Scotland hung out to dry.