With the SNP and the Tories determined to replay the referendum, its time for a renewal of Scottish Labour.
The local elections in Scotland were overshadowed by Nicola Sturgeon’s call for a second referendum, Theresa May’s subsequent rejection of it and then the calling of a snap election. The elections saw the SNP’s vote share slip to 32% and to a large extent the pro UK vote consolidated behind the Conservatives. Conservatives took council seats in areas that were hitherto unimagined, for example the areas of Fergulise Park and Shettleston, and some of the most deprived areas of the country now have tory councillors for the first time in their history .
The binary narrative of Tory versus SNP, No versus YES, is serving both parties well. Conflating Tory Westminster rule with the very existence of the Union itself in the referendum enabled SNP politicians to position themselves as the progressive alternative to a broken Westminster system. The Tories staking their claim as the only credible opposition and the party of the union has allowed them to take votes from Labour. Labour not a party of the constitution but a party of social and economic justice struggles to be heard.
The local council results seem to suggest that Nicola’s Sturgeon’s pretext for a new referendum Brexit hasn’t been the catalyst the SNP hoped. Firstly the arguments she uses about the centrality of the EU to Scottish interests are remarkably similar to the arguments we were making to maintain the partnership of nations that is the UK and it is also apparent that a significant number of Yes voters don’t want to be in the EU either.
Nicola Sturgeon wanted to make this a Holyrood vs Westminster trial of strength but it doesn’t seem to have altered the opinion polls much and the majority still don’t want or see the need for another divisive referendum and this has driven No voters to vote Conservative in the local elections as a protest against a second referendum. It also makes her argument for independence weaker – Scots voting for Conservatives in large numbers means we are not so different from our English friends after all?
So the local elections make clear that it’s not as straightforward as the SNP thinks but what can Labour do to get back in the game?
To begin with, we need to signal to the Scottish electorate we get it and are prepared to go through real and painful change to be worthy of their support. We need to listen more and be less aggrieved at those we see as our natural supporters turning to others. We need to propose new ways to address inequality and share prosperity amongst all our citizens.
It is time to accept that we live in a changed Scotland and there is no going back to the past. Kez Dugdale is right to talk about a new federalism within the UK as she formulates a new sense of patriotism within Scottish Labour. A patriotism that prioritises the interests of our country but is also comfortable with Scotland’s place within the UK. We must position this patriotism against the narrow nationalism presented by both the SNP and the Conservatives.
Secondly, the SNP has undoubtedly been enormously successful in their political strategy of positioning themselves against the Tories and austerity. But the party’s record in government raises real questions and it is clear they have no great plan for reform within Scotland. We have lots of commissions and consultations but no demonstrable progress in social and economic indicators.
On the contrary: things seem to be getting significantly worse. Scotland’s education system recorded its worst ever performance this year. Shockingly, standards of numeracy and literacy have dropped, and the attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children is demonstrably widening. Increasingly there is evidence of pressure within the NHS, and Scottish economic growth has stalled.
If Scottish Labour is to find a new way it must make this a concern of the Scottish people and show them there is an alternative.
Which takes me to my third and final point, namely the need to rebuild the party and shake off the bad habits of the past. There is no easy way through but Scottish Labour needs to look more long term at how we build a more positive and informed party. In the recent elections, it was interesting that those who survived the tide against Labour – Daniel Johnson, Jackie Baillie and Iain Gray – dug deep into their constituencies and created something of a personal political brand. We need to learn from their experience. The local elections give a glimmer of hope, Labour won the largest share of the vote in East Lothian and Inverclyde. Will the general election see a few more Labour MPs returned to Westminster?
Electoral success is not around the corner for the Scottish Labour party. We need to take this time to learn from our mistakes and rebuild. The Scottish Fabians can play a vital role in this through, a number of initiatives, our research project looking into the new world of work and our futures of Scotland work looking at the challenges and opportunities poised by Brexit.
The drivers of Scottish Labour politics remain fundamentally the same – to tackle the profound inequalities within Scottish education, the need to modernise our economy and make it work more fairly and more effectively, and the need to invest and improve our public services. Whilst the rhetoric of the SNP sounds good the reality is somewhat different. The Conservatives offer opposition to a second referendum but beyond that?
There is a real sense amongst Scots that we cannot afford to spend the next two years talking about the constitution. We need an assertive opposition that can offers Scots a better future and moves beyond the division caused by the referendum. By this measure, there is still a need and a place for the Scottish Labour Party.
Margaret Curran is the former Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland. She is now an honorary professor at Glasgow Caledonian University.