Alasdair Clark: Labour may finally be back on a winning course in Scotland

Writer and activist Alasdair Clark says Scottish Labour must ensure its next leader follows the path laid by UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn

SINCE 2007 it is undeniable that Scottish Labour has lost its foothold in Scottish politics. 

The country which gave us many of the greatest Labour giants fell out of love with the party. It stood looking over the edge, risking that it disappeared into irrelevance for a long time.

Even the strongest opponents of Scottish Labour cannot deny that since the dreadful result in 2016, tireless hours spent by Labour activists campaigning and working within their communities have paid off, helped even more by Jeremy Corbyn securing his position as the leader and creating an exciting agenda for the party.

READ MORE: Scottish Labour leadership race takes shape as Sarwar and Leonard enter contest

Since then there has been early evidence of a revival for the party at the ballot box. Despite a predicted wipeout like the Scottish Parliament election, the party has received a good response at the ballot box and successfully remained in control of many councils as a minority or coalition administration after the local elections in May.

In the lead up to June 2017, the atmosphere in lots of constituencies changed. Voters were excited about Jeremy Corbyn and the plan he created to lead the country. Those candidates who spent their time talking up our manifesto and the good a Labour government could do, while tailoring their message to local issues witnessed a positive reception from voters. 

In comparison, those campaigns that tried to out-union the Tories didn’t have the same success. Voters knew the election was not about another referendum and it seemed to make them more likely to vote against Labour. 

Defying expectation by retaining one seat and gaining another six, where Scottish Labour didn’t win the majorities of sitting opposition MPs were slashed, making the next election an unpredictable one.

And just this week, Scottish Labour won two local council by-elections.

READ MORE: The key moments of Kezia Dugdale's leadership

After the General Election and with Labour on a permanent election footing, Corbyn’s visit to Scotland and his tour of marginal seats attracted strong criticism from some. 

The reason for him speaking to those who backed the SNP is simple. We know those who vote Conservative do so because they dislike the politics the Labour party stands for and the policy we would deliver in government. 

Our anti-austerity 'For the Many, Not the Few' message doesn’t resonate with them. Our message resonates best with people who backed the SNP as a false alternative to the austerity-driven politics from Westminster.

Kezia Dugdale’s unexpected resignation shocked members and non-members alike. Many on the left of the party have seen serious criticism levelled at them. Briefings from "senior Labour sources" trying hard to shift blame began minutes after her resignation was announced, despite Dugdale's resignation letter making it clear she didn’t feel forced to go.

As Dugdale said in a TV interview shortly after the news went public, now is the right time. She changed our party in some positive ways - no longer can anyone accuse us of being a branch office. Instead, we’re a party with a strong voice as part of a wider UK Labour movement. 

In the 2016 Scottish Parliament election, the party stood on a manifesto to the left of the SNP under the direction of Dugdale and her team. However, her comments before Corbyn’s second leadership election created an unmanageable problem for Scottish Labour. How could our leader recommend Corbyn as the next prime minister when she backed an attempt to oust him as incompetent? 

READ MORE: Scottish Labour succeeds in local by-elections

In many members' opinion, her comments were a serious miscalculation which harmed the credibility of our campaign and attracted serious criticism from our opposition.

Dugdale's resignation gives Scottish Labour the chance to move into the next stage of our recovery. To do this, any new leadership needs to recognise some very important things.

First, our party has to own a distinct identity at every level. With local groups connecting with their communities and reflecting their desires as part of a strong Scottish party which has deep connections to the wider UK Labour party and the trade union movement. 

We should embrace the idea of localism and lead our politics in a way that can deliver for the voters we serve, knowing that a national campaign alone will not convince voters to back the party.

Secondly, realising that to win Scottish Labour needs to stand for radical politics and ideas. We have to be bold about the solutions we offer and take lead from the popular agenda that Corbyn has created. We have to be a party which favours progressive taxation, free education and an end to poverty and burden on the poor.

The independence referendum had a profound effect on the Scottish Labour party; the fair criticism it received forced it to undertake a necessary and radical transformation. 

Our new leader has to ensure that the party continues on that path, listening to the voters who left us, winning back their trust and support and showing that it is Labour which is the home of radical, progressive politics.

Picture courtesy of duncan c

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Duncan Hothersall

Fri, 09/08/2017 - 14:39

You say that campaigns which were pro-Jeremy did well and those which were pro-union did badly. Is this borne out by the evidence?

Labour gained 10,000 votes across Scotland in the 2017 general election compared to the 2015 one. 7,000 of those votes were gained in Edinburgh South, where the sitting MP Ian Murray campaigned on an explicitly pro-union, stop a second referendum platform, and where most mentions of Corbyn from voters on the doorstep began with "despite", not "because".

Other indications of how effective a "stop the second referendum" campaign was include the massive gains for the Scottish Tories in the same set of elections. Again, they explicitly campaigned on this platform, and saw their best Scottish result for generations. In East Ren, where Labour also campaigned on an explicit "stop the second ref" platform, we were beaten *by the Tories*, who campaigned on the same thing. This is not a sign that that was the wrong message!

People vote for lots of reasons, and change their votes for lots of reasons. I wouldn't for a moment suggest that campaigning against a second ref is the whole answer to Labour's comeback, and I agree with the sentiment that Labour needs to win back trust through other sensible policies.

But I would strongly counsel against any argument which tries to suggest firm unionism shouldn't be a fundamental part of our platform in Scotland for the foreseeable future. Labour seeks to represent working people. Working people would be harmed by independence. It is our duty to put the fight against independence front and centre in our electoral campaigning.

Alan Bissett

Fri, 09/08/2017 - 20:26

Tuned out as soon as I read "Our message resonates best with people who backed the SNP as a false alternative to the austerity-driven politics from Westminster."

Aye so false, given the radical agenda Sturgeon has announced in the last week and the mass abstentions on crucial welfare issues for which Labour have been responsible in Westminster.

Seeing as the SNP want to break up the imperialist relic of the British state Labour are so very wedded to and literally establish a new nation-state this 'false alternative' jibe feels glib, especially given how Labour worked hand-in-glove with the Tories as part of the Better Together coalition and also Kezia Dugdale's nudge and wink to voters in constituencies where the Tories were better placed to beat the SNP at the GE.

Scotland would be free of 'austerity-driven politics from Westminster' right now - and the Tories - were it not for the Labour party. There are many of us won't forget that in a hurry.

Adrian Simmons

Sat, 09/09/2017 - 10:47

I too stopped short at "people who backed the SNP as a false alternative", a patently ridiculous statement. Exactly what was the alternative? Neoliberal New Labour? The tory coalition partner Lib Dems? It's unlikely a Labour government in Holyrood would have fared much better when a Conservative government sits in Westminster controlling the block grant.

A real alternative only appeared in the last 4 months after the leaking of the Labour party manifesto. Its that manifesto not ardent unionism or Corbyn's personality that's allowed Labour a small resurgence.

ian gould

Sat, 09/09/2017 - 21:34

my finances are undergoing a resurgence I found a penny on the street today

gjm's picture


Mon, 09/11/2017 - 00:38

Not much to commend it, this article. Jeremy Corbyn's Labour party don't oppose austerity in the house of Commons where it is made law they simply talk about opposing it on the TV. The Scottish labour party does not exist as a political party, it exists as a description of the British Labour party in Scotland. The British labour party in Scotland can only convince the poorly informed that its interests coincide with the interests of Scottish voters. The labour party are little more than agents of the state in Scotland, a fraud on the punter. How about a lordship? A seat on the board of Goldman Sachs? A Vow or a 40% rule?

I'll stick with voting for SNP and an Independent Scotland.

Comparing Labour and SNP records on combating austerity I'll take the work the SNP do on that any day of the week.

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