Some Hard Truths for Scottish Labour

I’ve come across some emerging conclusions about what the Scottish Parliament elections mean for Scottish Labour. I’m not convinced by some of them, and I’ve tried to express why.

This isn’t just about the independence referendum

The aftermath of the independence referendum has created political problems for Scottish Labour. In focusing on these, it is easy to forget that we had an independence referendum because Scottish Labour had political problems. There wouldn’t have been a referendum if the SNP hadn’t had won a majority at the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections.

It is true that Scottish politics has undergone a structural shift, but this wasn’t a spontaneous and inexplicable act of nature. The conditions for it were partly caused by the deep rooted issues that Scottish Labour has had going back for a decade if not more.

The referendum has exacerbated our predicament, but it did not cause it.

Left vs right still matters

The dominant and most significant divide in Scottish politics is between Unionism and Nationalism. There is a risk though, that the constitutional prism becomes the only way we observe Scottish politics. The people of this country cannot be neatly compartmentalised into a box labelled either ‘yes’ or ‘no.’

Nationalists who think that nationhood demands statehood make up a proportion of the 45% of people that voted yes. Yet many individuals, particularly former Labour voters who switched to voting yes late in the referendum campaign, do not think in these terms. They didn’t stop leaning left, and they didn’t stop caring about issues like education, health or housing. They just stopped thinking that the Union and the Labour Party were the best vehicles for the values and issues they cared about. I don’t think that former Labour voters have started being believing that flags will improve social conditions, but they have started believing that a different constitutional arrangement might.

They are not, or at least do not think of themselves as nationalists in any formal sense. Attacking the traditional concept of political nationalism won’t change the minds of individuals who don’t actually consider themselves to be political nationalists.

Voters haven’t stopped thinking or caring about left wing values or policies, they just think these things as inextricably linked to constitutional reform. Most people in Scottish Labour do not share this analysis, but it is counter-productive to question the underlying sincerity of those who do.

We didn’t lose on policy and we won’t win on it either

Scottish Labour didn’t lose because we were too left wing in this election, and we didn’t lose in the past because were too centrist. Electoral politics in practice doesn’t work like that.

We didn’t lose because of our position on tax. Did it help with the wider electorate? Probably not. For the same reasons that Paul Keating understood, income tax rises are always hazardous political terrain. Did it prove that lots of Yes voters are fake lefties? Not necessarily, because those left leaning voters who might support tax rises in principle will not be converted back by just one issue, in just one election. It takes time to get messages through to voters, and even if they are absorbed, it takes time for voters to change their minds.

Even then, voters don’t engage with the democratic process like it is an online political compass test. There is a lot more at play. Even with our manifesto and the results it generated, are we really suggesting that Edinburgh Southern is a more left wing part of the country than Glasgow?

Perceptions relating to trust, competence and likeability all matter alongside interpretations of policy and philosophy. People don’t just vote on policies in isolation, they vote for the wider party with all of the baggage that entails. We can have the best package of polices going, but if voters aren’t willing to pay attention, then it doesn’t matter.

Our relationship with voters remains broken

I didn’t do an enormous amount of campaigning at the last election, but I did enough to agree that a lot of the anger that voters have towards Scottish Labour has dissipated. Some Labour activists have taken solace from this. I don’t.

Most of us will have been through a messy break-up, with the tears, empty tubs of Häagen-Dazs and the repeated playing of ‘Crossroads: The Best of Bon Jovi’ that entails. In the immediate aftermath of a break up, there is often anger. We are angry, because on some level, we still care about that relationship. Voters aren’t angry at us, because they don’t care anymore. The anger is gone, because they have moved on. The bitter snarl on the doorsteps has been replaced by a weary roll of the eyes. We shouldn’t be fooled into thinking this means voters are any closer to caring about, or trusting Scottish Labour again. They’ve just moved on.

We are currently experiencing one of the hardest truths about not just politics, but life. All relationships are based on trust, and it is far easier to lose, than it is to regain.

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