Scottish Labour needs deep-rooted reform

Ed Jacobs looks at the issues facing the Scottish parties, and particularly Labour, in the wake of Alex Salmond's stunning victory north of the border.

Alex Salmond

The SNP’s, and more particularly Alex Salmond’s, victory in Scotland was a political master class, leaving many north of the border and across the UK in a sense of awe. 

As Dr Neil McGarvey of Strathclyde University concluded before election day:

“Alex Salmond is a top politician with presence and status. He is obviously an electoral asset.”

And so he proved to be as under an electoral system designed, as Channel 4 News explained; “to prevent any party from achieving an overall majority” the SNP managed just that, defying all the odds. So the SNP are the only government in the UK to have an outright majority of its own. It’s the first party ever to have achieved a majority at Holyrood since the birth of devolution. Most importantly, at some point towards the end of the term of this parliament, Scottish voters will have the chance to vote on the SNP’s cherished vision of an independent Scotland.

Whilst polling indicates a distinct lack of enthusiasm and support for independence, for those committed to the union the next five years will be crucial in deciding the future shape of the UK and whether we are now witnessing its break up.

Firstly, it was not that long ago that the yes campaign for the Alternative Vote looked as though it had secured a commanding lead. It’s a lesson that those fighting to keep the union will need to be acutely aware of – public opinion can be shaped and altered decisively in a short period of time. A particularly poignant lesson given Alex Salmond’s extensive communication skills.   

Secondly, whilst all the talk from the SNP in the immediate future will be to down-play an imminent vote on independence, their calls for a beefing up of the powers to be given to Holyrood within the Scotland Bill are part of its longer term strategy. Either they win the extra powers, in particular economic and taxation powers, as a way of reassuring Scotland that looking after its own economic affairs does not necessarily spell disaster, or they use failure to make the case that a Tory led Westminster government is holding back Scotland.

But perhaps more significantly for unionists is the lack of anyone close to the stature of Alex Salmond to give a commanding lead to the pro-union movement. The Lib Dem collapse has relegated them to being close to a fringe party north of the border. Likewise, for Annabel Goldie, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, much of her strategy had been pinned to having influence over an SNP minority government. Having achieved an outright majority, her ambitions are in tatters. And, as Peter Oborne, writing for the Telegraph argues:

“David Cameron…is paying a heavy price…for his failure to shame Salmond into holding his promised referendum a year ago – a contest the SNP would have lost, thus seeing off independence as an issue in the way that…electoral reform has now been seen off. My suspicion is that George Osborne talked Cameron out of wasting political effort on a Scottish referendum; today the United Kingdom is facing the consequences of that decision.”

It is Scottish labour therefore that has both a duty and responsibility to lead a cross party movement against the SNP’s plans for independence. For them to do so however, a number of fundamental issues have to be addressed.

The first is to recognise the sheer scale of the problems Scottish Labour face. Having topped the poll in last year’s general election with a 42 per cent share of the vote, the results for the Scottish Elections showed that Labour had, on the constituency vote, seen its share tumble to 31 per cent. The reason? As political columnist Iain Macwhirter, warned prior to the election; Iain Gray failed to outline a clear strategy and vision for the party.

Having started their campaign by focusing on UK issues, attacking the Conservatives and calling on Scots voters to elect Labour to stand up to the Tories, Scottish Labour made a strategic error; forgetting who their real opponent was until it was too late. This election had been about who governs Scotland. The Tories were never going to do it and so it was the SNP that should have been the focus for Labour’s efforts right from the start. To have seen Scotland, as Ed Miliband argued, as the spring board for future success across the UK was to fail to take into account that Scotland is not the UK. The Tories are a periphery party at Holyrood, its politics cannot be seen within the prism of that used for Westminster.

Meanwhile Martin Kettle argued that the problem for Scottish Labour was Scottish voters’ inability to identify much of the Labour team in Scotland. Having so successfully argued for a “team Scotland” approach, Alex Salmond managed to form a relationship not just between himself and Scotland but between his senior and high profile ministers and Scotland.

Scottish Labour needs a big beast to take on Alex Salmond. As one Labour source has clearly explained:

“The seeds of this were sewn after the death of Donald Dewar and the Scottish Labour Party has not offered the country anyone of that stature since.”

Speaking on the Guardian’s podcast Severin Carrell outlined how Scottish Labour has a serious issue around attracting the best and the brightest to Edinburgh rather than Westminster. If it doesn’t then SNP MP, Angus MacNeil will be able to repeat his assertion that:

“The SNP put its best team on the field for the Scottish election, Labour put out its B team or its C or D team.”

The election of a majority SNP government in Scotland is undoubtedly a huge success for Alex Salmond and all he has fought for. For those however, committed to the union, a fundamental rethink over strategy to conquer the Salmond machine is needed if recent elections are not to be seen as the beginning of the end for the union. For Scottish Labour in particularly, radical changes are needed. As Paul Sinclair, a former special adviser to Gordon Brown puts it:

“We need a complete rethink of what Labour stands for in Scotland. We need to reach out and get fresh talent into the party in Scotland.

“Anyone who thought that Scotland was somehow naturally a Labour country is shaken out of that now.”

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