FOR the SNP, an epochal victory; for Labour and the Liberal Democrats, deep soul-searching in defeat. But in each case, a vital need for a new start – and the right start.
Nicola Sturgeon has scarcely put a foot wrong since taking over from Alex Salmond last year. She has led the party to a sensational winning sweep in 56 out of 58 Scottish seats. Today, the newly elected MPs will muster at Westminster to begin the task of representing Scotland. And that means, as the SNP leader made clear last Friday, speaking up for all the people of Scotland, irrespective of how they voted.
That is the critical difference between a sectional party and a national party.
Getting off to a good start will be vital for the task that lies ahead. Here the SNP starts with a great advantage: since it took control of the Holyrood administration in 2007, it has displayed an impressive discipline that its principal opponents can only envy: no public divisions, no acrimonious splits, no rancorous internal rows. The party’s new MPs have been set an impressive example on the responsibilities of power and how to hold themselves in public. Doubtless Angus Robertson will have lost no time in drilling into his new colleagues the need to maintain this public discipline and unity at all times.
That discipline extends as much to the senior old hands as to the young. Throughout the election campaign, Nicola Sturgeon was at pains to stress that this was not a re-run of the independence campaign and should not be seen as such. The election was fought – and won – on the basis of standing up for Scotland. Many thousands of Scots who would never vote for independence lent their support to SNP candidates who would go to Westminster to stand up for Scotland and make sure its voice is heard.
Those MPs must debate and cajole and influence but stay true to the promises Sturgeon made during the campaign.
But barely was victory achieved than former party leader Alex Salmond declared that this was a “staging post” to independence, which would happen in his lifetime. While that may go down well with party stalwarts, it might suggest to other voters that they have been duped.
This is not a good start – and Sturgeon, seen as a more moderate, inclusive and electable leader than her predecessor – must remind him of the clear statements that she made. Putting Scotland’s case at Westminster is not simply a question of raucous protests in the division lobbies but the exercise of influence through persuasion and argument.
For Labour and the Liberal Democrats, there is also a compelling need for a new and constructive start, however demoralising the defeat last Thursday. Ed Miliband never really overcame the fratricidal circumstances of his rise to the party leadership. And Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg never recovered from the catastrophic U-turn over tuition fees.
The speed of recovery for both parties critically rests on mapping out a fresh start and at an early stage.
Labour cannot ignore charisma
It WAS the late Labour stalwart Tony Benn who used to berate “the meeja” for ignoring the “issoos” and concentrating instead on personalities. But it is personality which plays a critical role in the public’s assessment of policies and politicians – and especially the ones put forward as leaders.
In the current febrile discussion in Labour ranks, there is already much talk of politics and a return to “core beliefs” on one hand and “Blairite values” on the other.
Such a debate is critically important. But the party cannot ignore the contribution that personality made in its defeat last week. A party needs a leader who looks the part – and one who would look the part as prime minister. Many voters struggled to see Ed Miliband as prime ministerial at all.
In the era of 24/7 TV exposure, that is a big ask. It is critical in modern politics that parties field a leader who not only looks the part but who can also stand up well to questioning under the TV spotlight.
Labour has a habit of overlooking this. In Scotland, Johann Lamont was an astute and quick-witted performer at First Minister’s Questions. But on a public platform, she often appeared intimidating.
And Ed Miliband seldom looked comfortable. The cameras caught him staring into the camera, mechanically repeating the names of everyone who asked a question: a stilted triumph of coaching over spontaneous esprit and eloquence. The final embrace of the ludicrous eight-foot “Edstone” confirmed voter suspicions of a leader at the mercy of a brainless gimmick machine.
In his dealings with the public, Miliband was never in the same class of confidence and ease as Nicola Sturgeon. Labour needs to ensure its next leader passes this basic personality test as well as setting out attractive policies that appeal to the varied backgrounds and circumstance that now characterise today’s voters.