There is much talk in the Scottish media about a crisis in Scottish Labour. Some of it is of course froth (is the Scottish Daily Mail where we would seek advice in our best interest?). But some of it is substantial – based on the post-poll evidence, anything between 30-40% of Labour voters voted Yes in the referendum.
The angst is also heightened by the surge in SNP membership to nearly 80,000, making them the third largest political party in the UK. Moreover, it is not only the numbers that are important: when the surge was first reported, the Glasgow Herald quoted ‘a senior Yes source’ as saying: “[the new SNP members] are all united in hating Labour.”
In other words, having failed to break the UK, the Yessers would gleefully, as a close second best, like to break Scottish Labour. It is against this background that we look to the next three years and their respective elections: Westminster 2015, Holyrood 2016, and local councils 2017.
Taken together, these elections are now an existential challenge for the party in Scotland: if we fail, we put at risk our potential to be a force in Scottish politics again in the foreseeable future, and perhaps ever.
So what should Scottish Labour do? Here are some basic ideas to get working on.
First, let’s give some leadership: Scottish Labour has to take the political process by the lapels and show it who’s boss – as in who won the referendum, and who is going to dictate to whom in the coming weeks and months.
Alex Salmond spoke about “holding the feet of the UK parties to the fire” over extra Holyrood powers, and Nicola Sturgeon looks like she will follow suit. They lost the referendum by a clear majority and it is their feet that should be held to the fire until they admit that fact. This is not just in Scottish Labour’s interest, but it is our duty to the 55% of Scottish voters who voted No to dominate the argument.
Like the old Scottish football manager Jimmy Sirrel said “the best team always wins and the rest is only gossip.” Scottish Labour needs to be clear that we are on the side of the majority and of democracy. We need to keep the SNP painted into its losing corner with the minority, aligned with the 45ers and the UDIers in the anti-democracy fringe.
Secondly, Scottish Labour must upscale the appeal of our unique selling point: that we are a party of UK government.
Most immediately, we must make it clear that as part of the winning side in the referendum, we can and will act to safeguard the outcome. It should therefore be announced as soon as possible as a headline commitment in next May’s General Election manifesto that no Labour government will agree to a new Scottish independence referendum: not in the next Parliament, not ever.
Thirdly, we must use our status as a UK party which can and will influence the big agendas of the coming years. The defeat of independence means that the essential issues of the economy and welfare, as well as defence and foreign affairs, remain at Westminster, meaning that Labour has a role in these areas which the SNP cannot rival.
Our message must be that if Scots want a voice in shaping the next decades, they are will be fools to waste their vote on the SNP. And if they want those decades to be socially progressive and economically successful, they will be wise to vote Labour.
Finally, we must look at how these cases, all based on the votes of the majority and common sense, can be presented effectively. Every night on television we see the SNP acting as if their campaign was still alive or as if they won the referendum. Labour’s campaign and public relations resources must be used to make sure that they do not go unchallenged.
The SNP claim that No voters will be angry if new powers are not delivered to Holyrood: in fact, many No voters are already enraged by the way that their votes are being ignored by the SNP and by media commentators obsessed with the Yes vote. The message is easy enough: Yes lost, and anyone continuing to argue the independence case should have their credibility shredded at every possible opportunity.
The referendum campaign showed that we have the people to do the job. Let’s use them. We can and must show up Yes for what it is: a zombie movement, running around causing havoc after life expired from its cause in the early morning of 19th September.
These steps do not address some of the issues which we face heading into the subsequent Holyrood Elections, although presenting ourselves as ‘Scotland’s UK party of social democracy’ in opposition to the SNP as ‘Scotland’s Party of Scotland’ has to be an advantage. It could even be a foundation for what we could call ‘Scotland’s Social Contract’ – a narrative which puts together our achievements, our polices and our objectives as we go forward into 2016.
Above all, however, they are steps which are bold enough to grab the initiative and set the agenda for the 2015 General Election in post-referendum Scotland. Moreover, they offer what people want and what Scotland needs.