What next for Scottish Labour?

Posted orginally on the Academy of Government blog >>

Margaret Curran, former Labour MSP, MP and Scottish Government Minister

Where were you when David Dimbleby read out the result of the exit poll? It was the biggest thrill many in Scottish Labour have had in some time. While the Tories nationally had made a mess of their campaign, the SNP seemed to lack the razor-sharp focus of before and the feeling on the doorstep for Labour activists was better than the last few years, no-one in Scottish Labour expected to gain six more seats.

After the near-death experience of the past few years, this result feels like a welcome reprieve. But is it? To answer that, we need to grapple with what actually happened during the election and respond accordingly. Misunderstand the message from the electorate, and the forward trajectory could just as easily be halted.

There was undoubtedly a shift away from the SNP on the doorsteps. At times, I did a double-take as people tooted their horns in support or broke into a smile at a Labour person knocking. Clearly the SNP campaign machine is not as invincible as we have all grown to believe.  A clear frustration with the SNP government is emerging, as people experience their public services in decline. Complacency from the First Minister is being felt; and ‘getting on with the day job’ was being repeated back to us on the doorstep. Contrary to Nicola Sturgeon’s expectations, Brexit is working against her plans, as both she and the prospect of a second referendum plunged in popularity. A significant number of the SNP’s previous supporters staying home on election day clearly helped Labour.

But perhaps the biggest shock of the campaign was the impact of Jeremy Corbyn on Scottish voters, defying the expectations of many in the Scottish Labour Party, myself included. Feedback from constituencies throughout Scotland testify that the turning point was the launch of the manifesto. Not only did it unite the party; it enabled Jeremy Corbyn to campaign on solid Labour values rather than the technocratic details of policy. He spoke over the heads of hostile reporters and, for once, Labour cut through on social media. Even those who had doubts grew to like him, attracted to his vision of a fairer and better society. He spoke to those who have seen their living standards decline year on year with no prospects of improvement and offered, to the surprise of many, the hope of a viable alternative.  This seems to be the election where age was a key factor in voting patterns.  Corbyn’s clarion call for an end to austerity and tackling inequality chimed with the recent messages of Kezia Dugdale and altogether it resonated more powerfully than ever before. Kezia performed well in the debates and the attacks from Nicola Sturgeon failed to gain traction.  Rather it was the SNP on the defensive.

But let’s not get carried away. Seven seats in Scotland is far from victory, and we underestimate the SNP at our peril. Nonetheless, we have established some groundwork for renewal. Scottish Labour now have a group of new and hungry MPs and candidates who are patently motivated more by their political values rather than the prospect of office.

There is also an energy to pursue the Scottish Government’s lacklustre record in office and reignite a debate in Scotland about public services and delivering economic prosperity for all. Corbyn delivered the break with the past that Labour desperately needed, and Kezia Dugdale’s arguments about poverty and tax may well get a much more positive hearing.

So what now? Fingers crossed the Scottish Labour Party doesn’t resort to type and engage in an internal battle between the Corbynistas as those that initially opposed him.  During the election, Corbyn knew that the broad-church nature of Labour was a strength and we need to keep it that way.

Understandably, some in Scottish Labour believe that the prospect of a second referendum is neglible at best. That is a hard argument to sustain when the nationalist party is still in government and, despite our successes last week, they still emerged as the largest party in Scotland. The SNP are hardwired to pursue the journey to independence at every opportunity and Scottish labour has to deal with that reality. It will not be off the political agenda in Scotland any time soon.

But that should not stop Scottish Labour thinking about how we improve our country and the quality of life of our citizens. At a time of increasing inequality, a struggling economy and profound challenges for our public services the SNP have run out of ideas. If we ever want to replace them in government, then we need to capture the radicalism that was articulated in the election campaign and translate into a plan of action for the Scottish Labour Party. The Scottish electorate might just be listening to us again… we now need to have something interesting to say.

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