A dark day for Scottish Labour

Iain GrayBy Johanna Baxter / @johannabaxter

This is a dark day indeed for the Scottish Labour Party. Those of us who have spent the last weeks and months fighting for the party in the recent elections are in pain – literally from 10+ hours on the doorstep every day for the past three weeks and metaphorically from seeing our party’s worst performance in Scotland for over 80 years, with many of our friends and colleagues suffering crushing defeats.

The reasons for this unprecedented defeat are many and complex. It is right that Iain has chosen to step down. But it is right not because he was not charismatic enough – he could never have been the larger than life figure that Alex Salmond is. That’s not in his nature and one of the reasons he secured the leadership was precisely because he provided a contrast to Salmond’s bolshy bravado. Iain cannot be blamed because he did not work hard enough or because he was not charismatic enough. It is right he resigned because as the Leader of the Scottish party he ultimately has to take responsibility for the whole campaign. And there were many things that went wrong with that.

I took annual leave from work to spend the last three weeks on the election front line, working full time in my home constituency of Cunninghame North, one of the most marginal seats in the country. The Nationalists controversially won that seat in 2007 by only 48 votes in an election in which there were over 1000 ‘discounted’ ballots and much speculation that ballots from our island of Arran had been tampered with on their way to the mainland (the boat they had been put on ‘broke down’ on the Clyde, many of the ballots couldn’t be read because they had got wet and a different number arrived on the mainland than left Arran). In this election the constituency should have been a knife edge and our the Scottish Labour Party should have been chucking resource at it. As it is the Nationalists won the seat with an increased majority of over 6000 and a 10.29 swing from Labour.

Whilst there were some internal issues in that CLP which will not have helped their result, and which would not be appropriate to detail here, they suffered like so many others at the hands of the Scottish campaign.

Scottish voters know the difference between a Scottish election and a Westminster one. Pitching the campaign as a way of sending a message to the Westminster coalition was never going to work. The party’s campaign relaunch half way into the short campaign was a recognition of that. But whilst the relaunched messages, pointing out the threat of independence and our plan for jobs, had relevance – they are both now the major issues facing Scotland – they missed one of the main points, didn’t come across as positive and were delivered too late in the day.

The main challenge to the Scottish Labour party was and is ‘Alex’, the brand. The electoral success of the SNP has nothing to do with independence – the polls continue to demonstrate Scots preference for a United Kingdom and voters I spoke to were happy voting SNP knowing that if they did face a vote on independence they would simply vote ‘no’ in that – and everything to do with their biggest electoral asset, Alex Salmond.

Like him or loathe him (I’m the latter) Alex Salmond is popular. The Nationalists have tapped into that and have cleverly branded themselves as the ‘Alex Salmond’ party – all of their literature, activist jackets, website etc were all branded with his name. Whilst our party was putting out red and blue leaflets reading ‘The SNP don’t have the clout’ voters were looking at bolshy Alex thinking he had a lot of clout and putting their cross beside the SNP box that had ‘Alex Salmond for First Minister’ on their very ballot paper. Which other party brands themselves on one person? None. But we knew they could put this wording on the ballot paper of every voter – they did it in 2007 – and did not counter it legally or with our own ‘branding’ (‘Scottish Labour – Fighting For Working People’ perhaps?). We did not need, or should have attempted to imitate that campaign technique – that actually would have not been possible and would have been unwise – but we did need to counter it.

We did need to differentiate ourselves. We did need to convey a positive message. And we did need to be co-ordinated in doing so.

We did have positive policies – our plan for jobs, the creation of a national care service for example – but the campaign either didn’t headline them at all or left it too late in the day to do so. Voters saw us agreeing with the SNP in opposing to tuition fees and their freeze on council tax and thought they could give us a bloody nose without feeling any pain. I’d argue that we shouldn’t have even conceded the position on their freeze on council tax – it’s pressuring council budgets, leading to cuts elsewhere and we should have made sure voters knew it was this Nationalist policy that was to blame for those. As it was voters saw what they thought was a good Nationalist policy coming from Holyrood and, largely, Labour councils imposing cuts on them.

The campaign itself suffered from high control by the centre and a lack of discipline on the ground. Whilst targeted direct mails were going out from HQ – the content of which was decided there without the input of the local constituency – many CLPs were struggling to engage members in the campaign. Whilst some of this was necessary due to lack of resource on the ground it doesn’t encourage engagement of activists.

Some seats, even those that had a good amount of resource, an active CLP and an outstanding candidate – Glasgow Southside for example – were never going to be able to withstand the national swing. Others might have had they started working for this election 4 years ago. It is a very sad fact that one of the reasons Labour was wiped out across the whole of Ayrshire was because, with the possible exception of Kilmarnock, there is no culture of campaigning in those constituencies. No matter how hard you try you can’t win an election during the short campaign. In too many areas the party has been too complacent.

Whilst CLPs can, and must, look at reforming their own organisation, our Scottish party also needs to take a long hard look at their relationship with CLPs and the Scottish activist base. Good activists need to be nurtured and developed. CLPs need to have the training and resource they need to engage with the electorate all year round. here is a reason attendance from Scottish CLPs at annual party conference is so poor and it’s not because there is also a Scottish conference (attendance at that has also fallen considerably) – it’s because our members and activists are not engaged with the party. That must be addressed in the root and branch review of the Scottish Party announced by Ed Miliband yesterday. And whilst it is right that review is conducted by the leaders office (the results have been so bad I do believe an external view is needed) it must involve people who know and understand the Scottish Party.

That review must produce urgent change – the next Scottish local government elections take place next year and people in, what were, our heartlands are in a desperate position. The Nationalists legacy after 4 years in Cunninghame North was to give us the highest rate of youth unemployment in Scotland and an adult unemployment rate which doubles the national average. I dread to think what they will do with another 4 years.

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