Reflect, Renew and Rebuild, our one day conference on 30 May at the STUC, Glasgow, offered an opportunity to consider Scottish Labour’s electoral collapse and how the party can start to move forward.
The conference began with a keynote address by Scottish Labour Deputy Leader Kezia Dugdale MSP, before moving on to a panel discussion and break-out groups.
Kezia spoke of the urgent need to understand and reapply Labour’s founding principles and values to the challenges facing Scotland in today’s world. Labour exists to give everyone the opportunity to realise their talents and participate fully in society:
We believe that the purpose of government is to help all citizens achieve the best possible outcomes for their own lives, no matter the odds.
She warned of a tendency to dwell too much on Labour’s past achievements, and too little on how Labour values relate to contemporary challenges.
The great danger in constantly reminding people of our past is that we look increasingly of the past.
She outlined four contemporary challenges Labour must confront and meet:
Firstly that the world is big, interconnected and rapidly ever-changing. Isolationism, looking inward, thinking we can look after ourselves inside our own borders isn’t the answer. There’s nothing to fear if we are brave enough to be relentlessly internationalist in our outlook and engaged with the issues. Leaning in.
Secondly, preparing our people and our economy for smart technology and low carbon century isn’t just a good idea, it’s a fundamental matter of basic survival.
The third is one we touched on in the general election, that our children living better and more productive lives than us is no longer a given, but something that we will have to sweat and compete, innovate and struggle to accomplish every day.
And finally, that massive inequality destroys societies and crushes hope. We see it at home and we see it across the world.
Sketching some ideas as to how Labour might meet those challenges, Kezia argued that education, ‘the great liberator and equaliser’, must be the party’s top priority, offering everyone the opportunity for lifelong learning to acquire the skills necessary to prosper in an ever-changing world.
Looking forward to the coming EU referendum she argued that Labour’s cosmopolitan outlook implies that Britain’s EU nationals should also be allowed to vote:
[I]f we are to have an honest debate about our EU membership, and take the opportunity that this referendum represents, then we need to involve everyone who wants a say.
Kezia also encouraged the party to open itself up to allow much wider participation in its policy making processes:
I want to put debate – the power of argument and conciliation, listening and constructing ideas – back at the heart of our movement. We pioneered political education in the last century, but we have forgotten how to share ideas through discussion and find consensus from difference. If we commit ourselves to doing policy in the light of day and with the participation of the whole of Scottish society, we will be better for it as activists, and our movement will be better served with an inexhaustible supply of innovation and people-centred policy.
Labour was founded by political visionaries who always looked forward. Today’s members and representatives must do the same:
So we should never forget those great heroes of our past, not least the Fabian thinkers. But they looked forward to us not back behind them. And were they here today, they would be saying don’t look back to us for where Labour should go now. If we taught you anything it should be that the watchword of Labour is always forward to the future.
The full text of Kezia’s speech is available on the Labour Hame website, and is also available on Vimeo:
There followed a lively panel discussion that encouraged many acute and honest observations from speakers and audience. The panel, chaired by Scottish Fabian Executive member and former MP Ann McKechin, consisted of MSPs Jackie Baillie and Mary Fee, Dave Watson of Unison, and journalist Simon Pia.
Mary argued that Scottish Labour had to completely rethink its campaigning strategy. Traditional door knocking and canvassing techniques aren’t enough: it is crucial to embed Labour within the life of communities:
The only dialogue we tend to have with electorate now is a few months before an election. People don’t believe we are at the heart of their community anymore. We need to move beyond left and right labels – people just want to know what we are going to do for them
For Simon Pia the defeat was the consequence of ‘arrogance, cronyism and careerism’ that has blighted the party for many years. He argued for serious consideration to be given to the establishment of an Independent Labour Party to allow Labour in Scotland the space to tailor policy to a Scottish electorate increasingly inclined towards independence. For Simon it was a mark of the extent of the party’s crisis that it could only win in metropolitan Edinburgh South, ‘the least Scottish of all Scottish constituencies’.
Jackie Baillie defended the substance of much of Labour’s policy programme, but said that it had simply failed to reach the electorate. Sophisticated arguments about the economic consequences of granting Scotland full fiscal autonomy, for example, had received good press coverage but didn’t make any waves with voters, who were no longer listening to what Labour had to say:
We didn’t lose on policy programme, but they won on emotion, on colour . We compromise, dull and dilute policies – and they don’t reach anyone.
Dave Watson agreed with Jackie that Scottish Labour was often too conservative about embracing radical new policies suitable for changing political circumstances. Dave argued that the party needed to revise its attitude towards devolution about which the party was often seen as being half-hearted: ironic given Labour’s establishment of the Scottish Parliament. He also noted that the SNP benefited from wide support within the voluntary sector, which is largely dependent on Scottish Government funding.
The discussion is available on Vimeo:
The day continued with break-out sessions discussing how the party can move forward. The topics were:
- What’s Our Story?: What are the ideas, values and principles that should underpin Scottish Labour’s policy offer and how do these translate into a story, message and pitch to Scotland?
- Getting it together: What structures and organisation do we need to be capable of winning in Scotland?
- The Doorstep Challenge: How do we need to change our campaign techniques, methods and mediums to get our message across?
- Our People and our future people: Who voted for us, who didn’t vote for us and how do we build a new electoral coalition to win again
Summaries of each session will be posted to our website shortly.
Andrew Harrop, General Secretary of The Fabian Society, closed the conference with a brief address. Noting the scale of the task Labour faces across the UK in 2020 – the party will need to win 106 constituencies to achieve a majority – Andrew asked Labour to go back to first principles and consider its mission:
If the Labour Party didn’t exist would you invent it?
He noted that one of the most sobering lessons of the election had been the realisation that a brilliant local campaign won’t make a difference if the electoral tide is against you.
He asked Labour to consider widening its idea of social justice to encompass not just economic opportunity but also political power – the devolution of power from the centre down to local government and throughout communities.
Thank you to all who attended a lively and exceptionally useful conference.