My priorities as Labour’s new Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

The challenges facing the Labour Party in Scotland are well-documented. We have a great deal of work to do to regain voters’ trust, and we know that it won’t happen overnight. But the work is well underway.

Working with Keir Starmer, my shadow cabinet colleagues, Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard and Scottish deputy leader Jackie Baillie, we are all united in our desire to rebuild our party in Scotland. And I know that Labour members across England and Wales want us to succeed.

Travelling across the country to visit local parties prior to lockdown, I was struck by both the determination of members to help the party recover in Scotland and their understanding of how important this is to Labour’s future. It is now my job to ensure that we make Scottish Labour an integral part of our party.

Scotland is not something to put into a box marked ‘too difficult’. We all have the same goal: returning to power, with Keir Starmer as our Prime Minister, so that we can build a fairer Britain for all nations and regions. My top priority as Shadow Scottish Secretary is to ensure we start to recover in Scotland to make that goal more achievable.

I have bored colleagues with stats for many months, including the fact that without any gains in Scotland we’ll need a swing large enough to win Jacob Rees-Mogg’s seat from the Tories at the next election to get a parliamentary majority of just one. This was reiterated in last week’s Labour Together extensive review of the 2019 campaign, which rightly concluded that Labour needed to be clear about where it stands on Scotland’s constitutional future.

I’m pleased that particular priority has already been addressed, so now we can move forward. Following a vote of the Scottish executive committee (SEC), we will be going into next year’s Holyrood election with a clear position to oppose both independence and a divisive second independence referendum.

Once people know where we stand, they are willing to give us the time of day and hear what else we have to say. That’s certainly my experience on the doorsteps in Edinburgh South, where I have won against the odds at each election.

As a party, we are focused on the priorities of the Scottish people: saving our NHS; rebuilding our economy; investing in education; looking to the future. We believe in helping every community to recover from the devastating effects of the coronavirus crisis, not dividing communities into winners and losers with yet another poisonous and paralysing debate on independence.

If SNP politicians want to make the argument for devoting years of government time and resources to a divisive second independence referendum, that tells you everything you need to know about their priorities. They’re not the priorities of the Labour Party, and they are not the priorities of the majority of people in Scotland.

In the House of Commons, my priority is to stand up for Scotland against the two extremes of the Tories and the nationalists. That means holding the UK government to account in the areas it is responsible for, such as the catastrophic decision to abolish the Department for International Development, which is headquartered in Scotland.

But it also means not letting the SNP off the hook for its massive failings in Scotland, with councils starved of cash, education standards in freefall, a health and social care crisis, and a fragile economy. Nearly 700,000 people in Scotland are currently on furlough, and the priority must be to support them and ensure as few as possible fall into unemployment.

Andrew Wilson, the former SNP MSP and economist behind the SNP’s fiscal plans for independence, has even predicted that Scotland’s economic recovery will be the worst in the developed world. Already, nearly one in four Scottish children live in poverty. My constituency of Edinburgh South is often described as quite affluent, but in some parts of it more than a third of children are being brought up in poverty. Without significant support, I fear a generation could now be left behind.

The SNP government has decided to delay the publication of the 2019-20 progress report on child poverty so that we can’t even monitor what is happening, and I expect we won’t see it this side of next May’s election. Coupled with the SNP’s failings in devolved policy areas, we have a Tory government in Westminster that has reversed the legislative steps taken by the previous Labour government on getting young people out of poverty.

From opposition, we will still seek to build a better future for young people. Prior to the 2019 general election, I worked on proposals for a Child Poverty Eradication Bill. We should aim to eradicate poverty and make sure the entire machinery of both governments is underpinned by this goal. Now that I am on the frontbench I can’t personally continue with work towards a Private Member’s Bill, but it is something I will be taking on in other ways.

Ultimately, though, our priority must be to return to power. The previous Labour government took 120,000 children in Scotland out of poverty through measures such as tax credits and the ​national minimum wage. This is why being in government matters.

Over the coming years, we must all work together so that Labour recovers in Scotland. That starts by being an effective and ferocious, but constructive, opposition that can become a credible alternative government. Then we can prioritise what really matters to people and make a real difference to people’s lives through our practical, progressive and principled politics.

This piece is part of a series by members of the new shadow cabinet

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