‘The route back into power for Labour in Scotland lies firmly in the constitution’. These were the words of Jackie Baillie at a fundraiser for Eastwood CLP that I recently attended. Jackie was only one of three Scottish Labour constituency MSPs to be elected in May 2016 – the lowest number of constituency Labour MSPs to have been returned to the Scottish parliament since the first elections in 1999. Scottish Labour found itself coming in third place behind the Tories in May – an outcome no one would have believed only a few years ago.
A fact we all have to face up to is that politics in Scotland is no longer divided along class lines – it is the constitution that matters most now. September 2014 now seems like a distant memory, when the Better Together campaign triumphed in the fight against Scottish independence and then just eight months later Scottish Labour’s presence in Westminster was almost wiped out, returning only Ian Murray as member of parliament for Edinburgh South. Our crushing defeat earlier this year saw us pushed back even further and as we head into the campaign for local government elections in 2017, few pundits are optimistic about our chances. You could say that we won the battle, but lost the war.
Nevertheless, it is our job as progressives to pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off. Our defeat in May should not make us despondent, but rather serve as a wake-up call for us to change and be perceived by the electorate as a government in waiting. Too many voters told us that although they would ordinarily support Labour, they were choosing to cast a vote for the Tories this time. They believed only Ruth Davidson’s party were strong enough to stand up to the Scottish National party’s mission to divide Scotland even further with their continued drive for independence.
Independent polling showed that our policy of increasing the top rate of tax to 50p to fund public services was immensely popular – until voters were told it was a Scottish Labour policy. This tells us two things: firstly, that our policy platform reflects we have a credible alternative to the SNP’s austerity and chronic underfunding of public services; but also that the Scottish Labour brand appears to be toxic. The manifesto our Labour candidates stood on in May was the most progressive we have ever put forward. Yet, as we in Scottish Labour know all too well, you can have the best policy platform with a more than capable leader but it is of no use whatsoever if the electorate are not listening.
Kezia Dugdale has made it clear that Scottish Labour is categorically opposed to a second referendum on independence. Our country is already divided; it does not need to be divided any further. Labour needs to be resolute in our commitment to the progressive case for the union to appeal to the large swathe of voters who want a better Scotland, not simply independence at any cost. With a strong, progressive policy platform and an unambiguous stance on the constitution, combined with the determination and hard work of our party activists, Scottish Labour can and will come back. We have learned the hard way that the landscape of Scottish politics has fundamentally changed, possibly forever. It is up to us now to carve out a way forward rather than just be passive reactors to that change.
Marian Craig is a candidate in the 23 and under section in the Progress strategy board elections