Scottish Labour must learn lessons from its grave defeat in the General Election, writes Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard.
Democracy means accepting the voters’ choice. Last Thursday the people spoke and we must listen. I joined the Labour Party in Stirling back in 1982 which meant that the first general election I campaigned in, and indeed, voted in, was in the newly created Stirling constituency in 1983. It was a harsh experience, not so much for me as a young student, but for the people who had lost their jobs in the local factories which had been closed because of government macroeconomic policy, who were looking for work and looking for new hope. Harsh too, although we did not yet know just how harsh, for the people of the eastern villages: those mining communities to the eastern side of Stirling, who a year later were to be engaged in a brutal struggle with the government to defend their jobs, their pits and their community.
Neil Kinnock’s words shortly before that 1983 election still ring true all these years later: “I warn you not to be ordinary, I warn you not to be young, I warn you not to fall ill, I warn you not to get old.” It is an impassioned plea which could have been made on the eve of poll last week.
Any rational calculus of the 2019 General Election must reckon with the fact that Labour’s Manifesto, if implemented, would have improved the lives of millions, from guaranteeing a decent wage, extending employment rights, to ending Universal Credit. With its Green Industrial Revolution, Labour was the first party in British political history to produce a serious and workable plan to tackle the defining issue of our time: climate change.
Bleaker future for all
And there was a clear promise of renewed investment in our economy, people and public services. By way of contrast, with the very real chance of a hard Brexit and no chance whatsoever now of the people being given a final say on Johnson’s tawdry deal, the next five years offer the prospect of more child poverty, more homelessness and rough-sleeping and a bleaker future for all.
Nevertheless, voters in Scotland and south of the border have sent a strong message to Labour and it would be a grave mistake not to listen. With defeat must come humility.
Which is why it is my view that instead of expecting the people of Scotland to come home to Labour, Scottish Labour must instead come home to them.
On the doorstep, it was clear that many voters liked and supported our manifesto, which is in line with what opinion polling has consistently suggested, but frankly doubted whether we could be trusted to implement it.
In addition to this, there was the false message swirling round promoted by our opponents that, in spite of the repeated insistence of Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and me that there would be no pacts, deals or coalitions with other parties including the SNP, many swing voters, particularly in parts of Glasgow and Lanarkshire where we won seats, and came closest to winning seats in 2017, decided they could have a Corbyn government and its policies at Westminster by voting for the SNP.
So what now? We will conduct a swift review and one that is evidence-based and backed up by the best available data – from the British Election Survey to the feedback of candidates and activists on the ground.
But more importantly we will undertake an outward-looking engagement with people and communities who share many of Labour’s values and who want to see real change, but who no longer look to the Labour Party to realise that change. No one should doubt my determination to learn and, more importantly, implement lessons from this grave defeat, however uncomfortable this may be for some in my party.
Urgent plan to devolve EU powers
It is clear that, 20 years on from devolution, the British state is too centralised and there are real imbalances of power in the economy too. In our manifesto, we promised to set up a Constitutional Convention to decentralise power.
Learning the lessons from the Scottish Constitutional Convention, we now should establish a Constitutional Convention in opposition. This could develop a blueprint which will be ready to legislate for and implement in government. And we should be prepared to work on this with other parties and organisations if and where this is possible.
With the UK’s now imminent departure from the European Union, we need an urgent plan for the devolution and decentralisation of repatriated powers. Exiting the EU should not bolster the centralised state at a UK level. It must mean new powers at a Scottish and local level and be backed with new demands for active regional policy and investment.
Let me be absolutely clear on one point: Labour will continue to campaign against the Tories’ harmful policies. The quote misattributed to Aneurin Bevan that “the NHS will last as long as there’s folk with faith left to fight for it” is none the less true for that. Donald Trump and Boris Johnson will face opposition on an unparalleled scale which we in the Labour movement will lead if they try to carve up the NHS.
By the time of the Scottish Parliament elections in 2021, the SNP will have been in power for 14 years. Their record on the NHS, on public health, on education, on the economy, on the funding of local services is coming under increased scrutiny.
People can see growing evidence of under-resourced and poorly managed services, letting down pupils, patients, staff and working people.
That’s why Labour needs to listen and act. We need to win again, not just for our own sake, but for the sake of all of those people in all of those communities who need a government that is on their side.
Richard Leonard is Scottish Labour leader and an MSP for Central Scotland