Labour’s Scottish failure: The lessons must be learnt

Matthew Pitt reports from Glasgow on the aftermath of Labour's disastrous showing in the Scottish elections, and outlines the lessons that must be learnt.

Matthew Pitt is the Parliamentary Assistant to Scottish Labour MP Willie Bain (Glasgow North East)

Notwithstanding a desire to forget the recent Scottish elections, it is important to reflect on the mistakes made, learn from these and plan ahead on how to change peoples’ perception about the Labour party; vitally, it had missed a grand opportunity to renew itself intellectually, organisationally and politically – something the party had not done since 2007. In the coming years, Labour needs to begin seizing the future before its opponents define the party as the past.

The Scottish campaign was based mainly on what was going on in Westminster instead of Holyrood, and was therefore a chase for voters based on a campaign strategy that was negative and backward-looking.

In its most simplistic form, what the party experienced on May 5th was a drastic loss of middle class voters in Scotland based on the straightforward reason that Labour did not represent their ambitions.

Core areas that were deemed winnable fell to the SNP because Labour had lost blue-collar and working-class support that did not massively swing towards Salmond’s party but often ended up not voting. This is underlined by the fact that some areas of Glasgow, for example, experienced a meagre turnout of around 34 per cent.

On the other hand, Labour should not lick their wounds by hiding behind the excuse that Lib Dem voters flocked in their masses to the SNP. In truth, many Labour voters had also been enticed by the SNP’s policies and their hugely charismatic leader.

In other words, Labour did not manage to convey a reason for these people to support its candidates, highlighted by the party’s dependence for them to come out in protest at what is happening in Westminster instead.

An important point the party failed to understand was that the elections were very different to a general one.

Instead of mainly competing with the centre right, which is embodied by the Tories, it had to take on the SNP on the centre left. Disappointingly, Labour did not manage to distinguish itself sufficiently on that side of the spectrum. On crime and policing, for example, its direction proved to be very divisive and turned away Lib Dem and moderate SNP voters.

So what does Labour have to do now for the future to prevent another Scotland disaster? The ongoing policy review launch first of all is a beginning but cannot be the end. It needs to go further and start involving the new generation of party members and activists from whatever tradition they may come from – be that Progress, Compass, Fabian or none.

A starting point would be to create a space for them in which they are able to discuss policies, hold conferences and ultimately publish their views to a wide audience.

In addition, Labour needs to work more closely with interested think tanks in order to develop ideas, whether that is on the environment or diversifying the Scottish economy. Ultimately, the party needs to come up with a new political narrative. This would directly translate into Labour beginning to build upon new principles in preparation for 2015.

It is a long way until general election day, but Labour needs to face the electorate and start thinking now, more than ever, what it stands for, where it is going and how it will get there.

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