Scottish Labour: hope after adversity

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Siobhan McCready says it’s time for Leonard’s leadership to be supported not supplanted

When Richard Leonard won the Scottish Labour leadership race in 2017, many saw it as a signal we were now firmly on a different path. New activists, enthused by the messages coming from British Labour and Jeremy Corbyn, saw this as a defining moment: we had left the bruising experience of 2014 behind and were back on track. There was so much positive energy around Richard’s campaign for the leadership that you’d be forgiven for assuming that energy would carry on and we’d now be in a much stronger position. But this is the Labour Party.

The near wipe-out of Labour in Scotland has been a sobering experience. We are in uncharted waters, it’s unsettling, scary at times. How did it come to this? Who is to blame? Why do the electorate not hear/understand/believe/trust our message? Why do others in the Party not get the message? What is that message? No matter what wing of the Party you identify with, the questions tend to be the same. Only the people to blame change. It’s frankly a waste of energy and just says to the electorate that we are a squabbling rabble, unfit to govern. At times, they are entirely right to hold that view!

Richard sits in the midst of this. A decent principled man with a track record of delivering for workers before entering Holyrood. He brings real life experience and a passion for the history of the labour movement that defines him, a good Labour man. His first act as leader was a quick exit from his celebration party straight to the BiFab plant in Methil showing solidarity with the workers fighting to save their jobs. Exactly where the Scottish Labour Party leader should be. If we are to once again be the party of labour, of working men and women, that’s where we all need to be. We should be standing shoulder to shoulder with workers everywhere right now struggling under austerity politics: council workers, health and social care workers, teachers, those in retail, hospitality …

So where are we? The Euro elections were a disaster, the message didn’t cut through, nobody really knew what we stood for in the end – not even ourselves. The policies agreed at annual conference seemed a distant memory. Things had moved on politically, whilst arguably we seemed stuck in neutral. It was a salutary lesson on the dangers of trying to keep everyone happy. In the end, no one really was. Richard for his part, followed the policy as agreed by the membership, but it was a difficult sell in the face of a hostile media, confused electorate and, frankly, our own malcontents seemingly happy to capitalise on this for whatever their agendas are. It was always going to be bad, but even the dire predictions were better than the eventual outcome. It was as bad as it gets.

Inevitable and predictable call for heads to roll follow – for Richard to step aside and for the next victim, sorry leader, to take their rightful place. We are running out of contenders so time to waken up. Changing leader won’t resolve anything but changing our collective attitude will. This is not the time for another public airing of dirty washing: it’s a time to have honest discussions, clear the air and move on. That’s what the electorate expect from us, a party fit to lead in uncertain times and it was heartening to see Richard showing that leadership at our Scottish Executive Committee meeting post-election. We need more of this: less about what Labour did in the past and more what it offers now. Yes, we have a proud history but the electorate want to hear what an invigorated Labour Party will do for them now.

One lesson from history though was the importance of organising communities. We need to spend less time at Holyrood, where we simply aren’t getting a hearing, and much more time out in our communities talking about our vision, highlighting SNP failures and offering fresh ideas. There’s nothing to lose right now.

It’s possibly the time to rethink other things too. We have a diminished parliamentary presence but no lack of talent across the party. A recent article in Labour List had several comments I’d take issue with but maybe now is indeed the time to draft in others from the ranks of union affiliates, councillors and senior activists to help sharpen the message. It’s time to do things differently, holding on and hoping for a change in wind direction whilst shuffling chairs isn’t enough.

Our message absolutely resonates with the electorate, and young people get it. Many in the union movement now give us a hearing and a fair few are returning. People in the community are talking about us again, not in a negative way. I know – I hear it daily. There’s lots of work to be done but it’s not hopeless by any means. The message isn’t the issue, nor is the leader. It’s us. To make that breakthrough people need to park egos and personal ambitions. It’s time to stop the games and manoeuvring. It’s time to pull as one and it’s time to get behind Richard and show him support. If we do, things will change and we will start winning again. Is that not what we all want?

Siobhan McCready is secretary of the Campaign for Socialism (http://www.campaignforsocialism.org.uk/), Chair of Unite Scotland Political Committee and a member of Scottish Labour’s Executive. She writes in a personal capacity.

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