Ewan Aitken: Politics has changed and Labour need to adapt

Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale has a lot to ponder. Picture: TSPL

Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale has a lot to ponder. Picture: TSPL

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THERE were highlights for Scottish Labour on Thursday – Daniel 
Johnson’s gaining of Edinburgh Southern and Jackie Baillie and Iain Gray holding their seats – but these were small crumbs from a sparse table.

The reasons for Scottish Labour finding itself in this tough place started many years ago. Some things in this election exacerbated those past issues.

Scottish Labour wanted to “move on” from the constitutional question and talk about the issues that impact Scotland’s population every day; education, poverty, cuts to public services, fracking and the impact of the ideology of austerity. The policy to increasing tax for those most able to pay, spoke of its values. Sadly, the Tories chose to play to the SNP tune of staying with the constitution, shifting the debate away from scrutiny of the SNP record in government. Without that context, Scottish Labour’s offer struggled to gain traction.

Politics is becoming much less “tribal”. People are willing to vote on one issue no matter the party. For example, those who vote SNP but would vote No to the break-up of the Union. Swing voters are sophisticated and careful voters who make choices on issues, not parties, and there are more and more of them. Around ten per cent of voters who had supported Scottish Labour wanted to express their view on the constitutional issue and decided the Tories were the place to do so. The portrayal by some of their decision to shift as evidence of similarity between Labour and Tory misses the point. There were significant examples of tactical voting in several seats, for different reasons and in different directions. In this election, Scottish Labour struggled to be the beneficiary of issue-based thinking, except in a few places, not all of which translated into wins.

Finally, somewhat ironically, it was not allegations of being “controlled by London” which hurt Scottish Labour but the apparent chaos of a UK Labour Party seemingly out of control, not least of which on the issue of systemic anti-Semitism.

Times are tough but the answer to the difficulties Scottish Labour face is not another leadership election. The journey is long but Scottish Labour, revived and healed, led by the able and brave Kez Dugdale, will continue to make an important contribution to Scotland’s national life and the communities upon which our nation is built.

• Ewan Aitken is the former Labour group leader at Edinburgh City Council