Leaders: Perils facing Scottish Labour

Margaret Curran has put her foot on the ball, looked up and caught her party horribly exposed

Curran is to be commended for her directness. Picture: Michael Gillen

THE Scottish Labour party faces an existential crisis entirely of its own making. Recent polls ­suggest SNP support at the general ­election next May could increase by as much as 75 per cent, ­compared with the last such ­election in 2010. If this was borne out on polling day it would take an electoral scythe to the ranks of Scottish Labour MPs across urban ­Scotland.

Sceptics who suggest this simply would not happen need only look at the way the Nationalists defied orthodoxy in the 2011 Holyrood election and won an overall majority in a parliament designed to prevent such an outcome.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

This is a watershed moment in Scottish politics, and no-one can have any degree of clarity about what the eventual landscape will look like. But what is clear is that Scottish Labour is in peril, with its domination of Scottish representation at Westminster now at risk of going the same way as its domination at Holyrood.

How did this come about? There are many contributory factors, of which just a few are: a tin ear for the concerns and hopes of Scottish voters at a time of austerity and growing national self-belief; the poor quality of leadership within Scottish Labour, first under the lacklustre Iain Gray and now under the uncharismatic Johann Lamont; the complacency with which the party approached the independence ­referendum, which turned in the final weeks to blind and bewildered panic; the grudging ­paucity of the party’s offering to the Scottish people on more powers for Holyrood; a blind hatred of the SNP, which manifests itself in a Pavlovian rejection of all its policies, regardless of their worth or popularity; a crisis of confidence about seeing Labour as the natural party of Scottish home rule, for fear of sounding ­“nationalist”; a seemingly endless capacity for infighting, usually based on personality and self-interest rather than ideology or principle; and, most recently, an inability to come up with a coherent and agenda-grabbing way of engaging with the Smith Commission.

Into this mess now steps Margaret Curran, the shadow secretary of state for Scotland, who seems set on making up for her previously low profile by – in football parlance – putting her foot on the ball, looking up, and trying to make sense of the shape of the game. In her article for this newspaper today, she tries to sketch a new identity for Scottish Labour as it looks to not one but two elections that will be its making or breaking, the general election next spring and the Holyrood election a year later. Curran is to be commended for her directness, signalling a more socialist Scottish Labour party that has put the Blair years behind it and returned to core values.

The problem with this vision is that it is ­wildly at odds with the voters’ perception of Scottish Labour’s priorities, which seem stuck in centrist New Labour compromises. Remarkably, the Scottish party feels as if it is currently positioned to the right of the UK Labour Party, which under Miliband has adopted a more radical stance. This, in itself, is a perfect sign of how rudderless Scottish Labour has become.

Can this once-mighty party whose story is marbled through the history of the Scottish ­nation over the past century make its way back into the hearts of the voters? Can it rediscover its mojo? Perhaps it is too late. Perhaps the torch has been passed on, especially with the SNP ­expected to take a leftward turn under new leader Nicola Sturgeon. But if there is to be a Scottish Labour recovery it has to start now, and it has to start with a radical, generous and bold approach to the Smith Commission on more powers for Holyrood. In one sense this is a very good opportunity for a party trying to make a statement about its future. But whether Scottish Labour is capable of grasping this thistle ­remains to be seen.

Continuity at school is crucial

WHAT makes a young person turn to a life of crime? That was the question asked in a Scottish Government study, the results of which we report today.

The conclusions are wide-ranging, but one theme comes up repeatedly: the importance of continuity, attachment and belonging. Providing these conditions in the family home is one of the great challenges of our time, and one that will require a generation of social change to achieve. But in the other crucible where young people’s personalities and outlook are formed – the school – making a difference may be easier.

The study concluded that the chances of a youngster becoming caught up in criminality could be reduced if they were not excluded from school. Attachment to school was “an important protective factor”, with the assessment that “school exclusion risks propelling young people into more ingrained offending”.

This makes a great deal of sense. A good school offers a sense of security and belonging. Losing that can disrupt the lives of already vulnerable teenagers.

Exclusion is one of the most contentious policies in our education system, with the interests of troublesome children at odds with those of their better-behaved classmates. The former’s interests lie in the kind of continuity the report’s authors value so much. For the latter – pupils whose learning is interrupted by unruly behaviour – their interest lies in the minimum of disruption, and the maximum attention of an undistracted teacher. The number of school exclusions has fallen dramatically in recent years. But some areas of Scotland deal with troubled pupils more effectively than others.

Our report highlights the remarkable fact that three-quarters of all permanent exclusions from school in Scotland happen in just two council areas – Edinburgh and Aberdeen. This is at best curious, at worst alarming.

The importance of continuity at school needs to be acknowledged throughout all of Scotland, and best practice both recognised and implemented.

We owe it to all our children – and to Scottish society as a whole – to give our young people the best possible start in life, and keep them to the straight and narrow.