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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11 Responses to “Scottish Labour needs deep-rooted reform”

  1. Wyrdtimes

    RT @leftfootfwd: Scottish Labour needs deep-rooted reform: http://bit.ly/mJNinU writes @edjacobs1985

  2. ross reid

    RT @leftfootfwd: Scottish Labour needs deep-rooted reform: http://bit.ly/mJNinU writes @edjacobs1985

  3. Michael

    Scottish Labour needs deep-rooted reform I Ed Jacobs I Left Foot Forward – http://j.mp/l7wqlG

  4. Ed Jacobs

    RT @leftfootfwd: Scottish Labour needs deep-rooted reform http://bit.ly/k4NWeN

  5. matthew pitt

    Time for painful yet necessary review RT @leftfootfwd: Scottish Labour needs deep-rooted reform http://bit.ly/k4NWeN

  6. Anon E Mouse

    Peter Osbourne is wrong. The only party paying a price is Labour where despite their gerrymandering they still were comprehensively thrashed by the SNP which sounds weird even to say it.

    To suggest that the SNP put out it’s best team against Labour’s B or C team is a pathetic excuse and should not be repeated on this fine blog. Are you suggesting Ed Jacobs that Ed Miliband and Ed balls are in the B or C team?

    What is the matter with Labour activists publishing that type of remark?

    Alex Salmond as a politician is better than anyone in the whole of the Labour Party and if Scotland does vote for independence Labour as a major political force are finished…

  7. Ed Jacobs

    Anon E Mouse – you make might point for me. Alex Salmond is by far the most dominant leader in Scotland and Scottish Labour has seen its big beast finding Westminster rather than Holyrood most attractive. The message we get from the election is that this was a Scottish election where people wanted Scottish leaders. Miliband and Balls, apart from being English, gave the impression that this was a referendum on the Tories. Labour lost sight in this election of who the enemy in devolved politics was – the SNP. It is at General Elections that Labour are best going for the Tories as there is a real threat of Tory Government in Westminster. In the devolved bodies, there’s noway that will ever happen.

  8. Anon E Mouse

    Ed Jacobs – I agree with the majority of your reply except I cannot see any “big beasts” in Labour anywhere at the moment. The fact is Ed Miliband is just too divisive a figure to the PLP so anyone of any note has bailed and that’s the problem. I cannot name a single individual with as much gravitas as Alistair Darling even that is in the cabinet – Dougie Alexander? Please.

    Ed Balls is also a Brownite and until Labour realise the only time they did well was under Tony Blair and his “broad church” the better.

    I do agree that the party lost sight in Scotland – the Tories were always the enemy – but they just seem unable to learn and despite the Tory Toffs nonsense from a couple of years ago they have really learned nothing.

    Remember as well that in South Wales the nationalist party there was severely beaten but the Tories still increased their number of councils and seats when Labour should have destroyed them with the unpopularity of the cuts.

    I do agree with a lot of your post though….

  9. Raged against the machine

    I have no doubt the ‘Two Bob” patriots Murphy and Wee Diddy Alexander will be dispatched northwards to quell rebellion, by Mr Bean and co at Millbank.

    Still great to see complacent unpleasant, hypocrits like McAveety, McCabe, Gordon and Whitton all finished and into oblivion

  10. vasu

    Scottish Labour needs deep-rooted reform I Ed Jacobs I Left Foot Forward

  11. richard mackinnon

    A week maybe a long time in politics but the decline and eventual extinction of a poitical party takes a wee bit longer. What happened in Scotland on May 5th was part of a much bigger picture. It is true that the reason the SNP won was because Alex Salmond was head and shoulders above Ian Gray, and that Labour had no positive message but that is only a part of the answer. Labours lost in Scotland because Tony Blair went to war in Iraq. Labour lost in Scotland because Gordon Brown made an total mess of the economy and was a laughing stock as PM. Labours councillors will be wiped out in next years Scottish council elections because they have been found out, old men with only one interest: self.
    The British poloitical scene is in the middle of an earthquake and Labour can’t even feel the tremours. Salmond and Cameron have something in common, they despise Labours Scottish MPs. They see them as an anachronism, voting on issues that have nothing to do with them. A deal is being hatched as I write this that will remove forever Labours Scottish influence at Westminster. When that happens the British Labour party is finished.

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