The worst electoral mistake a political party can make is to ask the public a question to which it is not the most logical or natural answer.
In 2011, Scottish Labour got hammered because we asked: ‘Which party would you vote for to show your displeasure with the government at Westminster?’. The SNP were delighted, because the most efficient way of dislodging Tory power over Scotland is not to vote for the party who campaigns against Tories at Westminster, but to vote for the party who want to sever the relationship between Scotland and Westminster altogether. We didn’t simply fail to counter but actively set up the SNP’s position as the natural home for Scotland’s anti-Tory majority: if you don’t like the Tories in London, thumbing your nose by voting for the separatists is the mother of all TWOFERs.
Our canny new Scottish leadership shows zero signs of repeating the mistake. With their relentless focus on jobs and living standards, Johann Lamont, Anas Sarwar and Margaret Curran are talking the same language as Scottish families from Pollokshields to Peterhead. Their efforts are part of the battle to move the national conversation away from ‘who shouts loudest about Scotland’ and on to ‘who delivers most for Scots’.
That strategic shift – to asking a question to which Labour is the most natural answer – is a necessary but insufficient condition of our electoral rejuvenation in Scotland. Pounding the SNP for their policy failures, as Lamont did so effectively during the first minister’s disastrous October, is essential for Scottish Labour to be a credible government in waiting, but we also need to take on Scottish nationalism as an idea, not simply the Scottish Nationalists as a party.
Labour cannot afford to stake too much of the case for the union on the weaknesses in the SNP’s policies or personnel, as the nationalists are perfectly capable of dispensing with either, as we saw in the recent debate about NATO membership. If SNP members are willing to reverse deeply-held and decade-old positions, if convinced that they are a barrier to their ultimate political objective, we must respond with an argument for the union that is more intrinsic than instrumental, more timeless than temporary.
In other words, the response to ‘it’s time’ should never have been ‘not right now it isn’t’. If Labour wants Scotland to remain a cherished part of our one nation, we need to recognise that the nationalist movement is wider than the SNP and its emotional appeal rooted in something so much deeper than Salmond’s gifts or his party’s record.
Their strategy is to position independence as the fulfilment of our national destiny, with the SNP merely serving as temporary guardian of Scotland’s ancient parliamentary ideal. In a sense they have already insulated independence from the independence party – successful attacks on the later will not translate automatically to diminished support for the former.
Labour’s Scottish leadership, therefore, faces the most difficult task in British politics. The Scottish people need them to do daily, forensic, localised attack and scrutiny on SNP councillors and MSPs, while at the same time drawing, on the broadest possible canvass, an inspiring vision of how our constitutional arrangements will serve not to thwart but to realise our distinct national aspirations.
That’s why an identifiably Labour strand to the unionist effort is a deep strategic imperative for both. The Scottish public rejected Labour because they felt we had become small, shrill and complacent, while the SNP, for all their faults, offered a ‘big idea’ presented positively with energy and humility. The party’s Devolution Commission is critically important because Labour simply can’t afford to look like we are still nursing personal grievances about the loss of ‘our’ seats while the other parties have a big conversation about the future. At the same time, the joint campaign for the union won’t succeed in inspiring Scotland without making a left case as to why we are better together. For all the electoral turbulence and Labour campaign failures of 2011, Scotland remains a social democratic country in which a successful analysis of the constitution needs to be rooted in the politics of jobs and justice.
The Scottish public doesn’t yet think we are entitled to govern – but they do want us to shoulder the burden that is uniquely ours to bear. Only Scottish Labour can be both the last line of defence for Scots squeezed between two governments with their priorities all wrong and at the same time the intellectual authors of a new kind of unionism, one which says a union which doesn’t redistribute resources or regulate in the interests of workers and consumers is not worthy of the name.
Scottish voters have always expected their politicians to be both pugilists and thinkers and have seen nothing contradictory in the idea of a bookish bruiser. In 2012 we’ve already been wowed by Johann Lamont the boxer, in 2013 expect to see a lot more of the philosopher queen.