Sunday, 15 May 2011

Ten Reasons Labour Lost

We were electing a Parliament

There was no more telling exchange in the whole campaign than Alex Salmond’s dismissive reply to Gordon Brewer when challenged about whether an SNP victory would not send a mixed message to the Westminster coalition. This election, he said, is not about sending messages to anybody, it is about electing a government for Scotland. Surely, one might think, he was only stating the bleeding obvious, but, obvious as it was, it passed by the Scottish Labour Campaign from start to finish. That was no momentary accident. Many in the Labour Party have never loved or learned to love the Scottish Parliament. They see it as little more than a glorified regional council and very much secondary to the real game at Westminster. After Thursday they can surely now be in no doubt that this is not a view shared by the Scottish people.

We gave no reason we should win

Labour advanced virtually no positive reason we should be elected. We moved from an initial strategy of encouraging people to vote Labour in order to defeat the Tories (who?) to latterly encouraging people to vote Labour in order to defeat the SNP. Any reasons given for actually voting for us, insofar as they emerged at all, amounted to little more than slogans rather than worked out proposals for Government: from the incoherent policy on knife crime, through the pledge that “efficiency savings” could fund countless spending pledges without a single compulsory redundancy to, most bizarre of all, the “promise” to abolish youth unemployment using the limited economic powers of the Holyrood Parliament and in the midst of a recession. No one believed any of this, not even us, but, since we were in any event more interested in “sending a message”, presumably none of that was meant to matter.

The core vote is not big enough

This almost speaks for itself. We’re down to the core vote and we got gubbed. At no point during the entire campaign however was any attempt made to reach out to voters beyond that core, particularly disenchanted Liberal Democrats who were always going to be a key element this year. Indeed, such was the inarticulacy and illiberality of our actual programme you might have thought that we were actively signalling that we didn’t want their votes. That was certainly the result we achieved.

Some of our candidates were an insult to the electorate.

As Labour was swept away one couldn’t help noticing that many of those losing “safe” seats were people almost all of Scotland were unaware had been sitting in the Parliament in the first place while many of those selected to fight our supposed target seats seemed to have been selected expressly to make the task of winning as difficult as possible. Whether the Labour Party likes it or not, the electorate clearly does not view a lifetime of undistinguished but faithful service to Labour local government or the Trade Union movement as per se a qualification for service in, the Scottish Parliament.  In selecting candidates, we are not handing out long service medals, we are trying to get elected.

The Country has not been anarchy for the last four years

In 1999 and 2003 Labour ran its anti nationalist campaign premised on the election of an SNP Government leading to a flight of capital, the collapse of the Scottish economy, schools and hospitals closing there doors out of a sheer sense of hopelessness and ultimately plagues of locusts ravishing the land. It might not have been honest but it was effective. It always did however have one major flaw. If our bluff was called, as it was in 2007, it was difficult to see any future such warning having any credibility. Once the SNP did get into government, the relief of the electorate that their daughters remained free of being sold into slavery would inevitably disguise the realisation that, equally unrealistically in terms of their historic positioning, an SNP administration was not in fact able to solve all of Scotland’s  problems overnight. To that extent therefore, even with a perfect campaign, Labour should have realised it was never going to be easy to deny them at least an initial second term. It was therefore astonishing that Labour approached the election with such a degree of complacency.

Actually, the Country’s  been quite well run.

Political parties normally learn from their own adverse electoral history. Without getting involved in argument over whether the SNP were ever truly the Tartan Tories, patently they have not governed as such for the last four years. Indeed, excepting the issue of the independence referendum they have done little if anything that would not have been done by a Labour administration. That’s just being honest. And they’ve done so with patent technocratic competence. That’s why Labour, albeit very belatedly, actually adopted most of the SNP’s policies and having done so then couldn’t work out why this, instead of alienating the electorate from the SNP actually reassured them that they could stick with the nationalists!

There is no incredible electoral machine.

Nothing amazed Labour Party veterans more than the media’s continuing willingness to accept Labour’s assertions that no matter how badly the air war was going we had a “secret army” who were in the process of winning an otherwise invisible ground war. Ten thousand activists were allegedly on the streets over the last weekend. This was a complete invention. The Labour Party in Scotland does not have ten thousand activists. Indeed, it doesn’t have five thousand. The whole Party structure tied to committee meetings in draughty halls on Tuesday nights was out of date in the 1980s. It is almost a museum piece in the internet age. Things won’t get better until that is addressed. The truth might even set us free.

We had no credible candidate for First Minister or just about any other minister.

It will suit many in the Party to try and put most of the blame on Iain Gray. That would be a mistake. Frankly, Iain Gray was as good a candidate as we had available and, to be honest, while he was  outclassed by Salmond, with the possible exception of Jackie Baillie at health, so were every single one of his shadow cabinet outclassed by their Government equivalents. Until Labour faces up to that then changing the leader will be an irrelevance.

There is no such thing as the Scottish Labour Party.

What position will Iain Gray’s successor actually hold?  Under the Party’s current constitutional arrangements it will not be leader of the Scottish Labour Party for that post is actually held, somewhat bizarrely, by one Ed Miliband. We need major change within the Party in Scotland: a rooting out of the deadwood at the top; a Party structure based on the ability to fight Scottish elections becoming an equal priority to fighting Westminster ones; a more inclusive candidate selection process; above all a means of involving our natural supporters fit for 2016 rather than 1916. All of that can only be achieved  by a leader in Scotland with the power to set the terms of the debate and force through the changes required without constantly having to seek permission from London.

Scotland is a Nation.

The most important point of all.  In 1997 I pursued the Labour nomination for the Cumbernauld and Kilsyth Westminster Constituency. That involved an interview by the Party’s National Executive Committee. At that interview I was asked in all seriousness what choice I would make if the interests of Scotland conflicted with the interests of the Labour Party. This showed a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of Scotland. I suspect the question was cribbed from a different sort of question asked of by-election candidates along the lines of “What would you do if the national interest of the Labour Party conflicted with the interests of (e.g.) Barnsley”. That might expect a finessed response. The national interest is however something quite different. No UK Prime Minister could ever get elected on the basis that they might even consider putting Party before Country, let alone if it was suspected that their primary loyalty was to France. In relation to Scotland however a mindset that our conduct here can be constrained by other factors still pervades the thinking of too many in the higher reaches of the Party.  If we don’t change that then the SNP, even if they do lose an independence referendum, will continue to govern indefinitely.

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