…or how much of the house is left?
The first thing, and the most overlooked about the 2019 General Election result in Scotland was that no-one (and I mean no-one) expected the scale of the result. SNP gains, yes. Labour going down, almost certain. But for Labour to be reduced to the Ian Murray Party, and for the SNP to gain so many seats across Scotland was never expected, even by candidates and campaigners in the SNP. This fact will be ignored or re-written; it will even be denied by those from whose narrative it is convenient, but it remains a fact.
So what happened? I’ve deliberately taken the Christmas and New Year period to think about this, because the hot takes being produced in the festive season may as well have been roasted with the Turkey – seemingly appealing but, underneath it all, a bit disappointing. In Glasgow North West, the seat for which I was the Election Agent for the Labour Party, there were 3 main things that came up during the campaign that I think are instructive for the Scottish Party as we decide to whom (and to what) we now turn.
The first was that, plainly, Corbyn was either hated or not liked very much. Others (I’m sure) will disagree that this never happened, but it did. People who said they voted Labour all their lives (and the canvassing data since c.2011 shows they did) said that they wouldn’t be voting for us because they couldn’t vote for Corbyn. I’ve seen other activists (amazingly enough, mostly those who were pro-Corbyn to begin with) say they found voters who couldn’t vote Labour because of Tony Blair – I can say with confidence that this did not happen once in Glasgow North West. The voters we spoke to didn’t trust him, didn’t think he was serious enough, didn’t know where he stood on the issues that mattered to them…which brings us to the second issue.
Brexit was a disaster for the Labour Party, not because we picked the wrong side, but because we didn’t pick a side until we absolutely had to – and even during the Election Campaign, Corbyn said he would be ‘neutral’ in any second referendum (RIP). There are those (one again, overwhelmingly those who seem to have supported the lifelong Eurosceptic Corbyn since 2015) who believe that Labour shouldn’t have ‘abandoned’ the northern working class towns who voted Leave in 2016 and that by ending up supporting a second referendum with a revised deal, we betrayed those people and lost their trust, and their vote. These people, however, overlook the fact that yes, while Labours vote did decrease by c.7% in Leave-voting English seats, it decreased by around 4% in Remain-voting English seats – so maybe significance of the choice can be overplayed. In Remain-voting Scotland, however, our vote decreased by 8.5% – and once again, on the doors speaking to voters, people didn’t know what our Brexit policy was. In Scotland, they had seen this before – after the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum, we were too slow to figure out where we stood. We tried (with the best of intentions and the smallest of precedent) to overcome a divide that was not ready to be healed, and so we ceded the Unionist ground to the Tories and the Nationalist ground to the SNP, and we were stranded in the middle. Yes, since the EU Referendum the UK Labour Party has, despite loud, clear and repeated warnings from its Scottish contingent who have suffered the consequences of this equivocation in the all-too-recent-past, does exactly the same thing, hoping for a different result, and yet we are astounded when the same things happened. When the battle-lines were drawn, we failed to get out of no-man’s-land.
And that ‘other’ referendum on Scottish Independence was the third thing, where again, it seemed that the UK Party seemed unwilling to take any direction or suggestion form the Scottish Party – though it may have been that the Scottish Leadership didn’t have the wherewithal to provide it. Just when it seemed we were able to provide a strong line north of the border, that the SNP wanted a referendum because they have no answers to any of the other questions facing Scotland, McDonnell, Corbyn et al. chimed in by weakening that message in an attempt, again, to cross a divide for which they did not have the measurements. Once again on the doorstep, former undecided voters (voters who, in Glasgow North West could have won us the seat), heard this and once again decided they didn’t know where we stood.
So, what was the result of this. People didn’t like our candidate for Prime Minister, so really needed another reason to vote for us; if they valued Remaining in the EU or a Second Referendum, then they voted Lib Dem; if they valued certainty on the Union (or were pro-Brexit), they voted Tory; and you can’t out-Nat the Nats. The net result, a bad night for Labour, particularly in Scotland.
So, then, what needs to be done…or what can be done? Is anything to be done?
I don’t yet believe that Labour is in terminal decline and we are merely experiencing the death throes – even in Scotland. I think there are enough people with enough commitment and determination to save the party, and even 20% support is 20% support. But, the short-term process is not a pretty one. The Holyrood Election in 2021 is not going to be a fun experience – there will be no hope of a ‘repeat 2017’ to fall back on – and the result may be even more unpleasant. But, it can be a vital first step in the recovery.
One of the good things about 2015 was that, for the first time in living memory, Scottish Labour had virtually no MPs it had to keep happy. It had no MPs who were essentially just expensive seat warmers taking up space, operating by patronage and demanding loyalty instead of earning it. Not every MP who lost their seat fits this mould (and the one who kept it certainly doesn’t), but it does, unfortunately describe a high number of them. IN terms of their contribution to their constituencies, their constituents and the legislative process, their contributions were minimal. The 2015 wipeout, then, provided an opportunity to focus on the people in our party, those with talent and ability and commitment should be a priority. But this is the opposite of what happened – instead, there was a relaxing of the rules for standing as a Labour Candidate. The concept of ‘The Panel’ (where potential candidates were assessed and considered on the basis of their ability) was replaced by a more basic ‘are you liable to cause us problems’ test, in the name of ‘returning democracy to the members’. In 2017, the nature of the election meant that the ‘party democracy’ bit was suspended and the SEC made decisions based on…reasons. The reasons some candidates were selected for 2017 and some were not has never been disclosed – which, you may think wouldn’t matter too much, except that more than expected were elected and those that weren’t were given a Golden Ticket into the next Westminster Selection (if they wanted it) with the bonus of being able to say they wanted to ‘finish the job’ or that they ‘had the experience’.
But experience of what, exactly? What is it that actually happened in 2017? Once again, that was a result that caught almost everyone off-guard and that few people expected. Being a Labour Agent at the Glasgow Count in 2017 was akin to being a 4 year old at their birthday party: you knew something positive was happening, but you didn’t know why. Immediately after the Election, not a great deal of “why did we lose” reflection happened through a combination of ‘bloody hell, we gained seats in Scotland’ and ‘Corbyn won the election in every way except the result’. We dared to hope that perhaps, a corner was being turned and that if we dug deep then maybe we would be able to bounce back – but despite the amazing hard work of talented MPs (in particular Paul Sweeney and Martin Whitfield) we have ended up right back were we were on the worst night of our lives. 2017 was the aberration – not 2015.
Looking back, then, and having the sampling data from counts to base this on, what I suspect happened this: in 2015 voters turned out do give Labour a beating, in 2017 SNP voters (but not necessarily the SNP) assumed an easy victory and stayed at home; in 2019, they were determined not to make the same mistake and showed up to beat Boris. This story, coupled with (as mentioned above) Labour’s shakiness on the Union (compared to the Tories; who showed a slight dip in their vote share, but who are pro-Brexit) and shakiness on Brexit (compared to the Lib Dems who showed a proportionate rise in their vote share) and a Leader who has dismal ratings in almost every respect led to an miserable annihilation. At a UK level, the 2019 Election was Labour’s worst result since 1935; in Scotland, it was our worst result since 1910 (and even then, we managed to return 2 MPs!)
In summary, we thought that 2015 was ground zero – then we dug deeper.
So, the problem ahead is bleak and the Parties, both UK and Scottish, are plunged into Leadership Elections. What can help us here.
The first, and perhaps most important thing to realise is that Labour is now going to suffer the longst period out of power since the war. We are currently 163 seats away from Government and it is impossible to believe that we can recover that in one 5 year period (even this one). So, we should take this time, yes to set out our vision for the country, but also set out our vision for the party – what we are, what we want to achieve and how we would achieve it.
The last 4 years have been incredibly damaging to our Party and its reputation. Where once we could safely be assumed to be the anti-racist party in the UK, we have allowed antisemitism to raise its head and we have been slow to act. Where we spoke about the power of common purpose and common endeavour, we have allowed factionalism and patronage to corrupt that vision. Where once we saw the merits of a broad church, scrutiny of ideas and exchange of views, we are a party that boos journalists. The call of “Unity, comrades” used to mean “we don’t have these fights in public”; under Corbyn it means “Agree of leave”. And too many did.
The first challenge of the new leader has to be to win those people back. Those who were hounded out of the party and told by people who had joined years ago that they weren’t ‘Real Labour’ members, many of whom had stood by the party in its worst times, had worked for it, stood for it, represented it, but who believed that Corbyn’s Labour Party was no longer a welcome space for them – we must fight to convince them that we have, once again, changed. Those who, whether because of their religious or racial identity, felt that they were no longer safe in Corbyn’s Labour Party – we must work to win back their trust. and instrumental to that will be the new Leader and Deputy Leader.
They will set the tone of the next five years, and must work in the knowledge that they are unlikely to be Prime Minister. But, they will have to the Leader of the Opposition that has been missing for the last few years – not playing to the party, but speaking for the country. They must embrace the knowledge that the Labour Party has always worked best, not when it pursues some ideological purity, but when it works diligently and pragmatically. The NHS was not set up because it represented some Socialist Utopia, but because there were people dying who couldn’t afford health care. The National Minimum Wage wasn’t a failure because it was established at a rate below what we now term a ‘Living Wage’, it was a success because now not even the Tories would abolish it.
The next leader, whoever they are, has to bare this in mind. The 3 people who (at time of writing) have launched their campaigns (Lisa Nandy, Jess Philips and Keir Starmer) all, in their own was show that they get this. They are all people who understand that we have to bring people with us, not just hope they come along. I don’t believe that Ian Lavery (a man who said in a room full of Labour activists who he hadn’t met that ‘It’s great to be able to feel proud to vote Labour again’ under Corbyn) cares about that nor that Rebecca-Long Bailey (who has near-enough been posted missing since December 2019) would know how as it is clear she is the preferred choice of the Corbyn machinery.
In all this too, is the Deputy Leadership. Fewer candidates have declared for this, but there is speculation that Ian Murray (Scotland’s last Labour MP) will stand. This can only be a good thing. It can sometimes feel like being a wildling in Game of Thrones, Southerners speak of ‘The North’ which is a place south of where you live. Scotland is often left out of leadership debates – not always out of ignorance but out of deference to the fact that we have a distinct place in the UK and so much is already devolved. But, as long as Scotland is part of the UK, it must be part of our Party. Even if Ian is unsuccessful, it will ensure that Scotland is front-and-centre of that debate and hopefully steer Labour to be the only party that truly stands up for whole of the UK and, hopefully, will be able to allow us to think clearly about a way back in Scotland.
And hopefully, we will be able to have Scotland begin to think about us.
As often as Corbyn’s name came up on the doors, Richard Leonard’s didn’t. In over 2 years as Scottish Leader, has has, unfortunately make little impression in the country. Some of this is the fact that, simply put, he has made little effort too. In the belief that we simply had to ride the Corbyn wave, there has been little to no attempt to build up the ‘Scottish Labour brand’ in the national consciousness. The autonomy for the Scottish Party that Kez Dugdale had to fight to win has lain unused since Leonard was elected. This is by design as the CfS and hard-left to let Corbyn have total control of the whole Party, but given the result in 2019, this seriously has to change. Much as we tell the SNP about the country, we don’t need a separate Scottish Party in order to make a difference – we just need to assert and use the powers we already have.
Another part of the reason for that is, I think, much the same reason that Corbyn was able to whip up a rally but failed to inspire the country. I don’t think I have ever heard him give a speech that didn’t reference Keir Hardie or set out a vision for ‘Municipal Socialism’. Just like in the UK, we were ignoring what people were saying and telling them what we wanted. To quote Leonard, we were too busy trying to “unite on the basis of class” and ignoring the fact that our country is still “dividing on the basis of nationality”.
And that, since 2014 has been our the issue. Since the 2011 SNP Government, all politics in Scotland has been focused on the Constitution and our relationship with and in the UK. There was hope (indeed, the SNP, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon all said) that after the Independence Referendum in 2014, regardless of the outcome would be the end of it – but it hasn’t been. It has dominated every election and event since. It has continued to be the dominant narrative in Scotland for over a decade…and looks set to continue to be. It has continued to starve every other issue and policy of oxygen. All the things that Labour cares about, the decline in our country under the SNP cannot and will not be noticed until this question is decided.
Independence would be a bad decision for Scotland. Even with the Tories, even with Brexit, even with all the other things we don’t even know are going to happen over the next 5 years, I still honestly and sincerely believe that Scottish Independence would be a step back for our country. But it is clear that this issue will not go away and that the SNP’s sole contribution to any debate will be to offer Independence as an alternative – and enough people (not a majority, but enough) think the matter is worth consideration. There is an argument, and one I increasingly support, that Labour can no longer play Canute to the oncoming tide. While I believe Scotland’s future should be in the UK, the only way that Labour will be given space and time to put forward it’s case to the country, to reverse declining numeracy and literacy, to cut the growing waiting lists, to invest in our crumbling infrastructure is to confirm that that is our future. It may be that only by facing this head-on, and once again setting out the positive case for the UK that Scotland will – after over 10 years – be able to finally move on and act as if we are in the early days of a better nation, and not just dream about some self-constructed paradise.
Labour must change, or we are finished. We cannot repeat the style and leadership of the last 4 years in the hope that the result is different. We cannot simply say “we are the good guys” and hope that people realise we are right. We cannot, any longer, ignore the conversations people are having in the country and just start talking about something else instead, hoping that our lone voice may drown out the crowd.
No longer can Labour speak only for the few in the party; we must talk to the many in our Country.