By Stephen Low
Labour succeeded in a variety of devolved settings – Wales, Manchester, Liverpool – but in Scotland we failed. We went into the elections in third place behind the Tories. We emerged in third place behind the Tories, only with fewer seats and the lowest ever share of the vote for Holyrood.
This you might think would prompt some contrition, or at least some reflection about where thigs are going wrong. Not in Anas Sarwar’s Scottish Labour it doesn’t. We are incidentally ‘Anas Sarwar’s Labour Party’. That was what people were being asked vote for. In fact a few weeks before the election, an attempt was made to have the party designation on regional ballots read ‘Anas Sarwar’s Scottish Labour’. This failed too. His name featured on most of the branding, usually in the biggest letters. There was constant repetition of the phrase ‘Vote Anas Sarwar’s Scottish Labour.” But people didn’t.
This was the campaign the leadership wanted and the Party got behind it with no dissent whatever. In that respect Anas had a great advantage denied his immediate predecessors: he wasn’t being briefed against by Anas Sarwar.
Perhaps this is why there is such effort being put into denying how badly we did. This started early. On the Friday before the count started, Anas emailed party members declaring that “We’re back” and “we’ve got real momentum”. Well, yes – momentum is what gravity gives to falling bodies.
This was followed up once the results were in with “We are back on the pitch”. It’s an analogy that manages both to be contemptuous of the efforts – and occasional successes – his parliamentary colleagues have been making over the years, and ignores that we now have fewer players and a support base for the Scottish Parliament that proportionally has never been smaller.
On Monday, Deputy Leader Jackie Baillie followed this up with a communication that read like it had been dictated into a speakwrite in the Ministry of Truth: “Our vote share rose notably across the length and breadth of the country.” In fact, it went down by 1% in the constituency vote and 1.2% on the list. Best of all we were urged: “You should watch this incredible video of all we achieved.” On watching there were no achievements listed or referred to. There were a dozen clips of Anas though. (In fairness there was also shot of Greenock and it wasn’t raining – you don’t often see that).
In truth, we shouldn’t be hugely surprised that denial of the obvious is the response after the election. It was one of the signal features of the campaign. During the campaign the messaging bounced around a lot – national recovery plan, better opposition, Both votes Labour, Second (list) vote Labour. In the last few days, there was an increasingly obvious tactical vote plea to “stop an SNP majority” – but there was a reason for that. This was done because, as is now obvious, people weren’t listening. People weren’t listening because Labour was trying to ignore what was the defining issue of the election – the constitutional question.
There is no shame in a Labour Party making the case that jobs and education, housing and health are more important than national identity. And the manifesto did contain decent radical policies, although the campaign foregrounded very few of them. Unfortunately for us and I’d argue, Scotland, these aren’t the issues determining political allegiance. Rather it is the ‘national question’. On this we not only had nothing distinctive to say – we looked as though we were trying to avoid the question.
Labour – sorry, Anas Sarwar’s Scottish Labour – fought the election arguing for an absolutely necessary “national recovery programme”. The necessity for this wasn’t only part of the general campaign. It was given as the answer every time the subject of another Independence referendum came up, and that came up all the time. As the campaign went on this approach became ever more threadbare.
Anas responding to queries about an Indyref with talk of a “national recovery programme” looked less and less like Harold Wilson setting a new agenda with the ‘white heat of technology’ and more and more like Basil Fawlty saying “don’t mention the war”. The question of the indyref would therefore be put again, and sometimes again, before Anas, or whoever, would have to deliver an answer that was identical to the Tories and, not that anyone cared, the Lib Dems.
This is exactly the position as the one that has crashed and burned at two general elections. It wasn’t different this time. Our stance – imagine a scale model of the Rev Ian Paisley clutching a Union Jack shouting “No, No, No” – did garner some tactical votes from the Tories in some constituencies where they were obvious no hopers. It seems, though, to have had zero utility in attracting working class (or any other) voters back from the SNP.
Avoiding the issue, even by foregrounding issues like jobs and health will do us no favours. We need to recognise that in today’s Scotland, flags beat facts.
A different approach is required – urgently. This isn’t to say Scottish Labour should embrace Independence, or even another indyref. We do though need to actually engage with the issue. We need to have something to say that is able to breach the constitutional binary – on that issue. Being distinctive on other issues is obviously vital, but as we have seen doesn’t win elections.
Internally, Labour, across the UK, should urgently accelerate the work of its constitutional commission led by Gordon Brown. If that can develop a credible proposal, rejecting the status quo and proposing a federal UK that redistributes power and wealth and strengthens our devolved administrations, that gives us something to argue for.
Externally we can both reach out to and challenge the Scottish Government. We can say that they should have a national consensus behind any future referendum not just a parliamentary vote. We should encourage them to engage not just with other parties but trade unions and civic Scotland. Crucially we should be asking them to make any future referendum a properly democratic proposition with a third option allowing for home rule.
These suggestions may or may not be sufficient to give Scottish Labour salience in the constitutional debate. What is clear though is that pretending that debate isn’t happening, or that our current stance of knee-jerk unionism is working is to guarantee continued failure and a spiral into complete irrelevance. We can do better – we can engage, seeking to broaden the debate. We can bring rationality to the table rather than either of the twin delusions that are Scottish and British nationalism.
Stephen Low is a member of Glasgow Southside CLP. He is a former member of Labour’s Scottish Executive and part of the Red Paper Collective
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