Scottish Labour’s electoral recovery continues with yesterday’s Scottish Parliament by-election win in Cowdenbeath. However, in 2016 the party will need to develop a new narrative and polices to attract the voters it needs to form a government.
In 2011, Scottish Labour suffered a major electoral defeat and the hands of the SNP who mobilised a coalition of voters far in excess of those who back their raison d’être, independence. The response, through the Review of Labour in Scotland, made important reforms to the party’s organisation. These included the election of a Leader of the Scottish Labour Party, CLPs based on Scottish Parliament constituencies and a belated devolution of the relevant sections of the rule book. The party’s organisational focus is important, but to win in 2016 the party also has to win the battle for ideas to mobilise a similar coalition of voters as the SNP achieved in 2011.
There will always be those in Scottish Labour who will argue for a ‘steady as she goes’ policy. We are winning so let’s just carry on doing more of the same. Yes, Scottish Labour is winning. The 2012 council elections returned many more Labour councillors and they lead half of Scotland’s councils, mostly in coalitions. Recent by-election victories in Dunfermline and Cowdenbeath confirm that trend. However, on closer analysis it has to be recognised that this has largely been achieved by capturing the disaffected LibDem vote - the SNP share of the vote has not fallen significantly. This means the SNP is retaining as voters that share of their vote, probably as much as one-third, who do not support independence.
To win in 2016, firstly Scottish Labour has to retain the transferring LibDems. At present they are probably voting Labour because they oppose independence, but will that still hold good when politics returns to normal after the referendum? Some are voting tactically in seats where it is a two horse race, others are looking for a new electoral home after the betrayal of Nick Clegg in entering a coalition with the Tories. That decision created even more problems for the LibDems in Scotland than in England.
Scottish Labour should also not abandon SNP voters who share many of the party’s values - not just those who don’t support independence. After the referendum there may well be an element of politics as normal for them as well – whatever the outcome. Some Scottish Labour and SNP activists can be painfully tribal, but it would be wrong to assume that this transfers down to all their voters!
Labour’s Scottish Policy Forum holds its first meeting this weekend, starting the process that will lead to the 2016 manifesto. One of the benefits of the referendum is the policy focus on Scotland and that should help educate Scottish Labour’s policy process. Groups like the Red Paper Collective, Scottish Fabians, the socialist societies and others have already contributed ideas that we should look at carefully.
The affiliated trade unions have given some initial thought to the issues that Scottish Labour should stand on in 2016 and this week STULP has published Bringing Scotland Together – A Workplace and Community Agenda. This paper sets out 13 ideas that we believe could build the sort of voter coalition that Scottish Labour needs after the referendum dust subsides. This manifesto suggests a range of common sense policies to close inequality gaps, provide better opportunities to promote inclusion and prevent isolation amongst both young and old, bring public service staff closer to their communities, and to improve the living conditions of middle and low income Scots.
So let’s celebrate electoral success, but also recognise that we need to work on new policies and a narrative that captures the imagination of a majority of Scots by 2016.