Scotland remains an Achilles’ heel for Labour which it needs to mend if it is to win back power, writes Brian Monteith.
All the creative and clever policies in wonkland do not an election win; a personal following, while important, is not a game-changer; and banging on about dishonesty of opponents is not a winning approach in politics.
What might appear attractive policies to some are invariably unimportant or unattractive, or simply the wrong priorities for others. Being likeable to one particular demographic (such as younger voters) is not enough if another demographic (such as voters who remember the seventies, eighties or nineties) is turned off in similar fashion. Marmite has its place but jam, especially strawberry jam, sells better. Claiming to be more honest than others is, for politicians, akin to throwing stones in glass houses. Inevitably an example, probably many examples, of betrayal, double standards, hypocrisy and playing fast and loose with the truth will be dug up from the past – be it faking an overcrowded railway carriage to denying the laying a wreath in memory of a bloodthirsty terrorist.
Politicians are no different from the rest of us, despite the best efforts of many to convince us otherwise, they are in fact human. This means they err, they make mistakes, they are sinners. The electorate is willing to forgive some errors – but not all. Using the question of trust can rebound if it only serves to raise questions about one’s own.
Instead, before factoring in all the helpful ingredients that any leader can decide upon the one key fundamental that must be secured if election victory is to be possible is identifying the correct election strategy. Without this foundation being in place everything else will be futile – victory, even progress towards victory, will be elusive.
That is why the Conservatives not only won, but won big. Putting it another way, it is why Labour regressed, falling behind so far that it is likely Labour will not be in power until at least 2028 – a full 18 years out of power, just as it was during the years of Margaret Thatcher and John Major (1979-1997). Make the wrong choice of leader now and it could be even longer.
This requirement to identify the correct strategy to deliver your goals (usually winning a majority, but it can be moving from third to second) pertains to all parties – but in the case of Labour, how it performs in future in Scotland is especially important. If Labour cannot recover sufficient seats from the SNP then any advances by Labour in England and Wales will most likely count for nothing.
During the recent election I was constantly being lobbied by friends in the Conservative Party to ensure the Brexit Party did not stand any candidates in constituencies where, firstly, a Tory was the incumbent and might be defeated, and then latterly where a Tory might be able to defeat a Labour candidate. The threat of an accidental Corbyn victory because of disenchanted Tory or Labour votes bleeding out to the Brexit Party was the weapon of my suitors’ choice.
It was not difficult to resist these approaches for I was certain of one thing, that Boris Johnson would win a majority, the real question was by how much? I held this view for I believed that Labour would lose all but one of its Scottish seats instead of gaining any – which it would have to do to win the keys to Downing Street. This echoed what I was finding in north-east England, where for too many ordinary working class voters Jeremy Corbyn was unelectable. (I use the term working class intentionally as that is how I found so many people self-identified.)
I had reasoned Labour would lose seats in Scotland because it had yet again made the strategic error of being ambiguous about its relationship with the SNP in the event that Jeremy Corbyn did not command a majority. This meant to Labour voters in Scotland that voting SNP was just as likely to deliver a Labour government at Westminster as voting Labour might. In such circumstances there is suddenly a great attraction to voting SNP when it can be argued the SNP can work the system better for Scotland’s advantage; and secondly it avoids having to endorse Jeremy Corbyn to get a Labour administration. It’s not as if their domestic policies differ greatly.
If we look back at the most recent elections when the SNP have posed a threat to Labour, the key weakness in the response of Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn has been their willingness to prostitute themselves to Alex Salmond or Nicola Sturgeon to gain power. This is doubly damaging for it not only tells Scots the Union is safer with the Tories but pushes Labour voters in England and Wales towards the Tories too.
Furthermore, efforts to encourage tactical voting by unionists is ruined by Labour because there is no guarantee against a minority Labour administration selling out to Sturgeon by offering a referendum in return for a confidence and supply agreement.
This lesson should be blindingly obvious to Labour Party supporters in Scotland and yet there remain some who think the way to Scottish votes is to appease the SNP. This is folly. Electoral results show this. More problematic though is how Labour Party leaders and trade union financiers in London have been willing to throw the United Kingdom under a bus in their craven pursuit of power at all costs. They have to waken up to the reality they will deliver continued power to the SNP, risk breaking up the UK, only to end up contesting England and Wales dominated by Tories.
The answer then is simple, the next Labour leader must make it abundantly clear that there will be no dalliance with the SNP. No referendum on independence, no discussions at Bute House or Downing Street that might give such an impression to potential voters anywhere across Britain.
If so-called “progressive patriotism” is to mean anything it must mean that never again can there be the possibility of a 48-sheet poster of Alex Salmond or a social media meme of Nicola Sturgeon – or whomsoever might in time replace the latter – showing the Labour leader in their top pocket.