Ian Swanson: Opposites detract from Labour quest

Leadership candidates Kezia Dugdale and Ken Macintosh. Picture: Andrew O'Brien
Leadership candidates Kezia Dugdale and Ken Macintosh. Picture: Andrew O'Brien
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THE party has no clear idea of how to respond to conflicting challenges north and south of the Border, says Ian Swanson.

Deputy leadership contender Alex Rowley put it bluntly: “Unless we bring about radical change, I believe we will see the demise of the Labour Party in Scotland.”

The first hustings for members to hear the candidates for Scottish Labour’s leader and deputy posts was held in the same room in Edinburgh’s Apex International Hotel in the Grassmarket as an almost identical event six months ago, before Jim Murphy took over the helm with Kezia Dugdale as number two. But the party’s fortunes have changed dramatically since then.

Ms Dugdale, the Lothian MSP who is now frontrunner for the leadership, also had a stark message to share with the audience of activists. A recent TNS poll found just five per cent of people in her age group (25-34) say they will vote Labour in next year’s Holyrood elections, while 80 per cent plan to opt for the SNP. There is little disguising the dire plight of Scottish Labour. And on the same night as the leadership hustings, a TV documentary on the party’s fall highlighted some deep-seated problems which may help explain the current situation.

These went right back to the people Labour chose – or didn’t choose – as candidates in the first elections to the new Scottish Parliament in 1999.

Many well-regarded figures found themselves turned down, as did some well-established MPs, most notably Dennis Canavan who went on to be elected as an independent. Other senior Scottish Labour MPs at Westminster were said to have been discouraged from seeking a move to Holyrood by none other than Scotland’s first First Minister, Donald Dewar.

The documentary also pointed to factors such as the legacy of Tony Blair and the Iraq war, spats between Labour ministers at Holyrood and colleagues at Westminster, the Scottish Labour leader’s lack of control over Scottish party headquarters and a failure by UK Labour politicians to understand how Scottish politics had changed with devolution.

Undoubtedly such a devastating collapse as Scottish Labour experienced last month is down to a combination of many factors and there are no quick fixes on offer to put things right. But lessons can be learned. And despite its strong historical roots in Scotland and its long domination of the political scene here, Labour now finds itself strangely out of tune with the way most Scots seem to view the world. The leadership and deputy candidates at least seem to recognise the scale of the problem and the need to change.

In parallel with the Scottish leadership contest, Labour is also choosing a new UK leader to replace Ed Miliband.

The temptation is to see these as separate and unrelated battles – and the different circumstances north and south of the Border encourage this.

In England, Labour lost to a Tory party with a clear right-wing agenda; in Scotland, the party was outflanked on the left by an SNP preaching an anti-austerity message.

How Labour can respond to these apparently conflicting challenges is not clear. But if the UK party wants to see power again, it cannot afford to focus on addressing the English challenge and disregard the Scottish one.

UK leadership hopefuls Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall have all been to Edinburgh to meet MSPs, but none of them has had much to say about Scotland.

After the “branch office” debacle, no doubt UK figures are wary of treading on Scottish toes. But the fact remains any UK recovery for Labour depends on winning seats again in Scotland.