WHEN the MP for Streatham decided last week to announce his decision to stand for the vacant Labour leadership, he was mindful of the accusation that his party had become detached from the sort of voters it needed to engage if it was to win a future general election.
Under Ed Miliband’s five-year stewardship, Labour was seen as having failed to understand people’s aspirations, so Chuka Umunna’s trip into the real world made sense. Though it was hard not to smirk at the fact he made it to the wilds of Swindon, just an hour from London.
‘There seems little to be gained by dancing only to the SNP’s tune’
But, although I understand the sense of Umunna travelling to a constituency his party failed to win in order to formally announce his candidacy – just days before he thought better of the idea and pulled out of the race – he should have taken a train much further. And he should have headed north.
Were I an adviser to any of the remaining candidates vying to become the next leader of the UK Labour party, I’d be booking a ticket to Scotland right now. I’d have my man or woman outline a vision for the future from Stirling Castle, or Edinburgh’s Royal Mile or the beach at Ardrossan.
If any of those who wish to succeed Miliband – and have a chance of becoming the next prime minister – want to show they truly understand the scale of the problems Labour faces across the UK, this would be a very useful start.
The election result suggests that Scotland and England are very different places, populated by people who hold completely contrasting values. Having elected 56 SNP MPs, Scots must surely be predominantly of the left while a comfortable victory for the Tories in England has to mean that everyone south of the Border is a right-winger. That has to be right, doesn’t it?
But don’t the results in Scotland and England point to something that the Scots and English have in common: a lack of faith in the Labour party?
Scottish Labour’s decline – listen, you can hear it even now – began long before the party, in the SNP’s language, “stood shoulder to shoulder with the Tories” in last year’s referendum campaign. That may have accelerated things, but it’s eight years since the nationalists won their first Holyrood election, and the SNP landslide of 2011 pointed to a Scottish Labour Party in crisis long before its recent humiliation.
Scottish Labour did not lose because it was not left-wing enough, it lost because the SNP was more energetic, more focused, and more positive. The nationalists – in the words of a senior Scottish Government figure – built a fortress on the centre ground. They didn’t outflank Labour on the left, they marched straight in and stole their territory.
Undoubtedly, the SNP has picked up support from those who see themselves as being of the left, but the party’s success has been built on winning over the cautious middle classes.
In England, the Tories’ appeal was also to that “squeezed middle”. While Miliband promised to help those at the bottom of the ladder and punish those at the top (two minority groups), he failed conspicuously to say anything that appealed to the majority of voters who are somewhere on the spectrum between savage poverty and obscene wealth.
The next leader of the Labour party, then, has to fight two parallel battles – along different lines – in order to try to win over the same sort of voters. And the fight in Scotland, I would argue, is the more pressing. England is not yet completely lost to the party. Scotland, on the other hand, very nearly is.
Nothing Labour does will ever satisfy the SNP. How could it? The nationalists will always accuse Labour of treating Scotland with disdain, of being controlled by Westminster. Labour are red Tories, remember?
If the next leader of Her Majesty’s opposition was to declare that the party was now fully in favour of Scottish independence, the SNP would say it was too little, too late. So, for all the talk among politics nerds of Scottish Labour becoming more autonomous (and, I don’t know about you, but I don’t hear this being talked about while I’m queueing for my mid-morning steak bake in Greggs) there seems little to be gained by the party dancing only to the SNP’s tune.
Labour in England is in dire straits, too, but the party’s pulse beats more strongly than it does in Scotland.
English Labour MPs and activists are certainly correct in their view that those who voted Tory on 7 May have to be persuaded to change their allegiances, but they simply cannot afford to forget Scotland. Without Scottish Labour MPs, a Westminster majority will be all but impossible to achieve ever again.
A clever candidate for the party’s leadership would start in Scotland, recognising the scale of the Labour defeat and telling a story that appeals to the cautious majority. To make this difficult task all the more arduous, that story must also resonate with voters in England. The challenge of pulling this off would be huge but Labour is in a peculiarly challenging position.
With the Liberal Democrats now mortally wounded on the sidelines, the Labour party has a decent claim to being the only true party of the Union. The Tories, after an election campaign designed to stoke up division between Scotland and England, no longer appear to care about the United Kingdom.
Despite the SNP’s election success, there is not yet a majority in Scotland in favour of independence. Labour’s next leader must find a way of reaching out to those voters.
The Labour party’s problems in England are not inconsiderable; it has squandered support that it took years to win. But unless the next leader can begin to win back Scotland, a renaissance in the south won’t be enough to put Labour back in power at Westminster for a very long time. «