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I was the Head of Policy and Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland until my retirement in September 2018. I now work on several policy development projects, so all views are very definitely my own. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

A very different election

Well that was different! From landslide victory to hung parliament breaks the received wisdom that the short election campaign can only marginally shift voting intention. I have been fighting elections since the age of 12, and I can’t recall anything close to this one.

First and foremost the story is about Jeremy Corbyn. He has helped increase the Labour Party's support more than any other party leader since 1945. Talking in a straightforward way, in socialism terms, about the state of our country, chimed with many more voters than we could have imagined. Most importantly, he brought many non-voters, particularly the young, into the political discourse. It’s a very broad generality, but if Brexit was about older voters, this election was about the young.

Admittedly, this was helped by a quite extraordinarily inept performance by Theresa May. Her absence from debates, avoiding real voters and ‘Maybot’ performances, showed a politician out of touch with the emotional pull of modern campaigns. The contrast between her staged events with the party faithful and the huge Jeremy Corbyn rallies was stark.

There was a positive feel about all this last weekend, when previously critical columnists like John Harris and Calum Campbell, got out of the bubble and started to talk to real people on the ground. They picked up on the impact social media had in countering the right-wing media. Here are a few of the best to enjoy. This is a point analysed today by academics, but we should also remember that the broadcast media duty to give even coverage, remains an important factor.

A number of Jeremy’s critics (here is a Ch4 news clip to remind them!) have had the good grace to admit they were wrong. Owen Smith went up in my estimation with his candid interview on the BBC yesterday. I particularly enjoyed the wriggling embarrassed interviews the likes of John Woodcock had to face. I hope more of the coup plotters will now recognise the huge damage they did at a time when the Tories were on the post-Brexit ropes. Imagine what could have been achieved had Labour started this election campaign from a higher base.

In Scotland, where politics has been stuck in a constitutional rut, the Corbyn effect also helped. I have sat through enough of Scottish Labour’s private polling presentations in the last year to know that a 27.3% share of the vote is huge progress. Even when polling was in the low teens there was some sign of hope. It was young voters that were the most willing to give Labour a hearing, and it was Jeremy who turned that into votes.

It wasn’t just the young. The manifesto commitments on issues like the minimum wage; the public sector pay cap; workers rights and ending austerity resonated with voters, including a number who took a different position over independence.

Scottish Labour’s vote share is only just behind the Tories, yet delivered only half the seats. Labour is not in a position to complain about the impact of the First Past The Post system, but it might make some pause to consider. My congratulations to all the new Scottish Labour MSPs. I was particularly chuffed with the election of the irrepressible Hughie Gaffney and Danielle Rowley, both of whom will bring something very different to Westminster. A number of others came closer than anyone expected, not least UNISON’s Angela Feeney, who moved mountains in Motherwell and Wishaw.

Of course it’s bad that Scottish Conservative MPs will be propping up the Tories in Westminster, particularly when they didn’t fight the election on the UK Tory manifesto. Whatever my differences with some of the defeated SNP MPs, I take no pleasure in their replacement by Tories. They may not have had the impact they claimed, but they worked hard on reserved issues like welfare cuts and employment rights.

Having said that, I give no credence to claims that Labour urged voters to back the Tories when they were the challenger. Kez’s interview was a simple factual statement and the outpourings of an obscure constituency official is not proof of a wider strategy. The SNP lost seats because their vote fell significantly and a number of MPs held on because there wasn’t that much tactical voting on the constitution. Contrary to popular myth, Scotland is not some socialist nirvana – the Tories won in seats they have held before Thatcher wrecked the brand.

If I have a criticism of the Scottish Labour campaign, it is that it focused too much on the constitution. I understand the tactical reasons and it is true that there was little appetite, even amongst Yes voters, for Indyref2. But sending out letters from Alistair Darling did not help the trade union case for Labour. I have said many times before that scrapping with the Tories over the perceived unionist vote is a dead end for Scottish Labour. There are a growing number of voters in Scotland who can focus on issues other than the constitution when it matters. Scottish Labour has to ignore the core flag wavers on both sides and focus on the constitutional middle ground. A point reinforced by Mark Lazarowicz in today’s Herald.

 Finally, we will of course need to see how the Westminster position plays out. After the bile thrown at Jeremy over the IRA, it is beyond irony to see the Tories working with the DUP. The DUP is going to face a level of scrutiny they are not used to. Not least the strange story of Brexit funding.

Labour needs to build on the momentum of this campaign. Even Tory MPs are beginning to realise that austerity has failed economically, as Joseph Stiglitz and others have pointed out. Also, having had an intensive conversation with their voters in recent weeks, they better understand people’s concerns over the impact on public services. When voters in places like Kensington and Canterbury are returning Labour MPs, it is surely time for a rethink.

Labour has to develop its credible alternatives to austerity and refine its offer to build on the success of this campaign, for what will be an inevitable re-run in the foreseeable future.

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