There is no denying that the Scottish election result two was disastrous for Scottish Labour. It was once a common joke that there were more pandas at Edinburgh zoo than Scottish Conservatives but that is no longer the case and people on the left are no longer laughing. It pains me to say this but the people of Scotland made a clear and conscious decision to vote for a party that had a strong core message of being pro-union and holding the Scottish government to account.
This resulted in the Scottish Conservatives now being the official opposition and Scottish Labour being relegated to third place. If this was football we would be looking for a new manager although I’m not for one second advocating a change in leadership. If we thought last year was bad where we lost all constituency seats in Scotland apart from Ian Murrays seat In Edinburgh South, things are looking worse for the party that once dominated Scottish politics. However not all is lost provided we do something about it.
This has to be a wake up a call for the Scottish Labour party chiefs who surely cannot be planning to continue as they have done or in 2021 we will find ourselves in the same position as the Liberal Democrats currently find themselves in or possibly worse. I don’t agree when people say that Labour is on the way out but I do acknowledge that there has been a fundamental change in our relationship with the Scottish electorate.
There is no easy way to sugar coat this and I’m sure most people will agree when I say that Scottish Labour took the people of Scotland for granted. This made some people in the party complacent which has directly contributed to the position we now find ourselves in. The current situation could have been avoided had the party been more engaged with the membership, and, even more importantly, with the communities we seek to represent with the focus being on policy not personality.
Scottish Labour needs to reinvent itself and reconnect with the public and membership at large. As a Scottish Labour candidate in the recent Scottish parliament election I owe a massive debt of gratitude to my members who came out week after week and supported my campaign, but again we need to do more to engage with the membership on a grassroots level. Morale is low amongst Scottish Labour party members who will undoubtedly continue to vote for Scottish Labour and pay their membership fees but won’t be active when it comes to doorknocking or engaging with voters which is vitally important in any campaign.
In short, Scottish Labour has a sleeping membership issue which if not addressed will only leave us sleepwalking to election defeat after election defeat. It’s rare for me to use the word admiration when talking about the SNP but in this context it’s very relevant as I do admire their grassroots involvement and that their activists feel part of the party. The Labour party isn’t just Jeremy Corbyn or Kezia Dugdale, it’s much bigger than that and it belongs to us all and I do want to see us becoming a true members party again.
In order to achieve this we need to have a properly defined structure of accountability which would see the Labour leadership accountable to the Scottish Executive Committee who in turn would be accountable to the CLP membership. For too long decisions have been made with no accountability to the membership and in order for Scottish Labour to be seen to be changing it must first change from within.
We need to give people a reason to vote Labour in Scotland again and whilst we had progressive policies on health, tax education and housing the electorate felt somewhat confused as to where we stood on the prospect of a second independence referendum. Initially our position was against a second referendum but then we altered our position by saying that Scottish Labour MSPs could be given a free vote.
The unintended consequence of altering of our position is that we in actual fact alienated pro union no voters to try and appeal to the yes pro-independence supporters. This ultimately resulted in the electorate being confused as to where we stood. In politics a party that is perceived to be making u-turns on policy is a party that is seen as not being credible, competent or responsible. In other words a party that the electorate see as not being fit for government. What we should have done is had a strong clear message on the constitution. Alex Rowley, the Deputy Leader, is right to argue that there is a strong argument to re-examine the case for home rule or devo-max which has the support from Tom Watson, Deputy Leader of UK Labour as well as trade union support. The home rule argument was also echoed by newly elected Glasgow list MSP Anas Sarwar.
The independence referendum has dominated Scottish politics for quite some time and will continue to do so. If we are to re-connect with the people of Scotland we need to be seen as being credible and trustworthy and we need to have a wider debate about the constitution along with our UK Labour colleagues in terms of where we go from here. It’s simply not good enough to ignore the constitutional question and hope that the debate will change. I think Anas Sarwar was correct when he said that “we are neither pro union or pro independence” yet clearly the issue presented a real dilemma for Scottish Labour in terms of our approach. The case for re-examining home rule is now very strong and something that Scottish Labour has no option but to embark on if it is to remain a force in Scottish politics.
Barrie Cunning is a former Scottish Labour candidate for Ettrick, Roxburgh & Berwickshire