The future of the left since 1884

Road to recovery

Scottish Labour has a mountain to climb in next year’s elections but its values still chime with voters, writes Jackie Baillie MSP.


Long read

This has been a year that no one could have predicted. Covid-19 has torn apart our families, our communities and our economy. Unemployment levels are through the roof and our health and social care services are at breaking point. The pandemic has presented the Labour party with challenges we have never had to tackle before, and the way that the coronavirus crisis has  been handled – both in Holyrood and Westminster – has shown that there has never been a greater need for a strong Labour party. Success in Scotland is key to success in the UK as a whole.

Considerable polling has been carried out over the last six months which has told a story about Scottish Labour’s support, where we have gone wrong and what we can do to rebuild and move forward. Despite polls showing growing support for independence, the majority of people in Scotland believe that independence is a distraction from more important issues impacting the country. Amid the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, just 36 per cent of voters in a recent survey said they consider independence ‘one of the most important issues facing the country’. However only 9 per cent of voters are willing to consider voting for a party that has a different view on independence from theirs. Therefore we must remain unequivocal on our pro-UK stance whilst setting out policies that will make a difference to the lives of Scots.

I have never been one to beat about the bush and I am going to be honest now: on our current polling, Scottish Labour will not gain the support that we need to form the Scottish government come May 2021. I am always ambitious for the Scottish Labour party, as I am ambitious for my country, but we need to do much, much better if we are to take over St. Andrew’s House.

There is a huge mountain to climb, but that does not mean we cannot make progress. Labour’s values remain the values of the Scottish people. Polling suggests a quarter of SNP leaning voters would consider Labour if we showed leadership, unity and vision for ordinary Scots. We are a party which can move the country on from the divisions of Brexit and independence, which both the SNP and Tories thrive off, and instead anchor our politics in the issues that matter to people: jobs, the NHS and schools.

At present, the SNP and Greens have formed a fauxfriendly alliance in pursuit of independence. The Greens support the SNP even though its policies are far from progressive and the vote of no confidence in John Swinney after his disastrous handling of school exams failed because the Greens voted with the government to keep his position. On the other side of the chamber are the Scottish Tories who spend their time falling over themselves to defend the indefensible actions of Boris Johnson and his government. Jackson Carlaw MSP proved ineffectual but with Ruth Davidson MSP back in the driving seat, and Douglas Ross MP as their new leader, we must redouble our efforts to prove that they are no better than their blond boss in Number 10.

When it comes to progressive politics the SNP is all talk and little action, a message that Scottish Labour must drive home with the electorate. Nicola Sturgeon says that her party’s record speaks for itself – I couldn’t agree more. Just this year alone, we have watched the SNP government pass up on the opportunity to provide fair rents in the private sector or tackle debt for those who have lost their jobs. We have seen our cherished NHS staff and social care workers being forced to tackle the pandemic with wholly inadequate protection, whilst hospital patients are transferred to care homes without being tested – and even on some occasions after testing positive – for Covid-19. John Swinney was forced to make a truly historic U-turn after realising that he had ruined the future prospects of hundreds of thousands of pupils across Scotland. He had been willing to allow for Scotland’s most disadvantaged but brightest pupils to receive completely unfair grades, because he trusted postcodes over the professional judgement of Scotland’s teachers. Yet what was Sturgeon’s announcement of the summer? A second independence referendum would be a  key policy within her 2021 manifesto.

Breaking up the United Kingdom is the SNP’s sole priority. That is the entirety of their political project. Tackling poverty, closing the attainment gap, ending injustice and inequality all play second fiddle to independence. Voters want the focus to be on rebuilding our health and social care sector, supporting our teachers and schools, finding secure work for all those who find themselves newly unemployed and protecting our planet for future generations. These are Labour’s priorities.

Scottish Labour has a clear position on the constitution – we believe in a strong Scotland in a strong UK. Never again can we flip flop on some of the most important issues that face our country. But now is not the time for a second independence referendum and constitutional upheaval.

Communities across Scotland need a party which seeks to tackle the problems of today and helps our nation recover, rather than rehash the debates of the past. We must therefore deny the SNP an overall majority in Holyrood. Keir Starmer’s strong leadership and his high approval ratings in Scotland, along with a well-run campaign, can help us achieve this.

How Scottish Labour campaign in the forthcoming Holyrood election is going to be very different from ever before. Scottish Labour is full of dedicated and experienced activists who come out year after year and election after election to knock on doors in constituencies across Scotland. But this time around, Scottish Labour’s campaign is going to be highly digitalised. This will ensure that we still speak to voters whilst keeping both the electorate and ourselves safe. The Labour party is currently completing a review of our digital resources but we need additional capacity developed in Scotland to increase engagement across social media and online platforms. The days of being able to place a column in a newspaper safe in the knowledge that it will have a wide reach are over. To its credit, the SNP has a huge following across online platforms and it uses this effectively to gain support and amplify its message. We must do the same.

Not only is the way that we campaign changing, but the focus of our 2021 campaign is changing too. Scottish Labour has long focused, almost exclusively, on trying to  gain as many constituency seats in Holyrood as we can – viewing any seats that we pick up on the regional list as a bonus. There was some sense in working this way when our support was high across the country but we must recognise that this is, unfortunately, no longer the case. So for the first time in Scottish Labour’s history, we will be running the 2021 Holyrood campaign with a well-targeted strategy. This will run parallel to the defensive constituency campaigns that will be run in Dumbarton, Edinburgh Southern and East Lothian.

As one of Scottish Labour’s only three constituency MSPs – and with a constituency majority of 109 votes  – I know all too well that Scottish Labour’s support in constituencies is low, but I remain determined to win my seat. I strongly believe that we have areas of embedded support in communities across Scotland which a regional list campaign would allow us to tap into. Our local council wards are the building blocks for growing and retaining support for Scottish Labour. Indeed many activists tell me that it is at the level of the neighbourhood that you win elections. There will be hundreds of thousands of voters across Scotland who see Labour delivering at local level, through their councillors and local Labour MSPs. Our progressive values and policies, focused on the wants and needs of their family and local community, are attractive to local voters. The potential support for a party, focused on the things that matter to people – jobs, health, education, public services – is there, but we’ve got to work for it.

During a speech in August, our leader Richard Leonard laid out exactly how Scottish Labour will hold both the SNP and Conservative governments to account. We have a  clear understanding of what communities across Scotland desperately need. From rebuilding our NHS and valuing staff, to creating a National Care Service so that our older people are treated with dignity; from a jobs guarantee scheme to offer our young people hope for the future to creating a Green New Deal with investment in over 100,000 jobs. As we rebuild and recover after the coronavirus pandemic, Scottish Labour will provide bold, progressive policies that offer hope and opportunity to people in every area of Scotland. We need a strong Labour party to bring  about change in the UK and our road to recovery starts in Scotland.

Image credit: David McKelvey/Flickr 

Jackie Baillie MSP

Jackie Baillie MSP is deputy leader of the Scottish Labour party


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