Richard Leonard says when the people speak, political parties must listen
The election result was grave for Labour. Though we tried to break through the din of Brexit and the issue of a second independence referendum, we failed. And while we tried to be positive and set out what we were for and what a Labour Government would do, the general tone of the debate was negative. ‘No’ and ‘stop’ were the key words dominating the election campaign in Scotland.
After the campaign, I looked back. I joined Labour in 1982 which meant that the first general election I campaigned in, and indeed, voted in, was in the newly created Stirling constituency in 1983. It was a harsh experience, not so much for me as a young student, but for the people who had lost their jobs in the local factories which had been closed because of government economic policy, who were looking for work and looking for new hope. Harsh too, although we did not yet know just how harsh, for the people of the eastern villages: those mining communities to the east of Stirling, in the neighbouring Clackmannan constituency, who a year later were to be engaged in a brutal struggle with the government to defend their jobs, their pits and their community.
I fear that we are in for a repeat, as the failed experiment of austerity and an economic policy which is designed to serve the interests of the City of London is revived. Labour’s manifesto, if implemented, would have improved the lives of millions, from guaranteeing a decent wage, extending employment rights and union freedoms, to ending Universal Credit. With its Green industrial revolution, Labour was the first party in British political history to produce a serious and workable plan to tackle climate change. And, there was a clear promise of renewed investment in our economy, people and public services. By way of contrast, we now face a ‘hard’ Brexit and no chance whatsoever of the people being given a final say on Johnson’s tawdry deal.
Nevertheless, voters have sent a strong message to Labour and it would be a grave mistake not to listen. With defeat must come humility. This is why it is my view that instead of expecting the people of Scotland to come home to Labour, Scottish Labour must come home to them. On the doorstep, it was clear that many voters liked and supported our manifesto but doubted whether we could be trusted to implement it.
Despite repeated insistence by Corbyn, McDonnell and myself that there would be no pacts, deals or coalitions with other parties, there was a false message promoted by our opponents. Thus, many swing voters, particularly in parts of Glasgow and Lanarkshire where we won seats, and came closest to winning seats in 2017, decided they could have a Corbyn government and its policies at Westminster by voting for the SNP.
We will conduct a swift review and one that is evidence based backed up both by the best available data, from the British Election Survey and candidate and activist feedback. But more importantly we will undertake an outward looking engagement with the people and those communities who share many of Labour’s values and who want to see real change, but who no longer look to Labour to deliver that. No one should doubt my determination to learn and, more importantly, implement lessons from this serious defeat, however uncomfortable this may be for some in Labour.
It’s clear twenty years on from devolution that the British state is too centralised. There are huge imbalances of power in the economy too. In our manifesto, we promised to set up a Constitutional Convention to decentralise power. Learning the lessons from the Scottish Constitutional Convention, we now should establish a Constitutional Convention in opposition. This could develop a blue-print which will be ready to legislate for and implement in government. And, we should be prepared to work on this with other parties and civic organisations if and where possible.
With Britain’s now imminent departure from the EU, it means we need an urgent plan for the devolution and decentralisation of repatriated powers. Exiting the EU should not bolster the centralised British state. It must mean new powers at a Scottish and local level and be backed with new demands for active regional policy and investment.
I do not believe that the answer lies in the creation of a separate Scottish state, with its separate Scottish currency, a neo-liberal economic model with worker flexicurity, and significant economic power and control resting outside Scotland. To bring about change we need democratic representation and intervention at the level where economic power lies.
We could decide to create a new political state but withdrawal from Britain would open up a significant democratic deficit in the economy. I think it would be a profound mistake. In this century, we should not be putting new borders and national boundaries up. We should be bringing them down.
By the Scottish Parliament election in 2021, the SNP will have been in power for 14 years. Its record on the NHS, public health, education, the economy, the funding of local services is coming under increased scrutiny. People can see growing evidence of under-resourced and poorly managed services, letting down pupils, patients, staff and working people.
That is why Labour needs to listen and learn. And it is also we why need to start to win again: not for our own sake but for the sake of those people and communities that need a Labour Scottish Government committed to equality, economic democracy and real change. That is the challenge that lies ahead.
Richard Leonard MSP is leader of the Scottish Labour Party