Four things Labour can do to win back Scotland (after May 7)

‘Best job in the world’ Andrew Milligan/PA

In these straitened times you would think that a party in Scotland that was advocating a strong social-justice agenda, including more nurses for the NHS, a freeze on household energy bills, a living wage, local decision-making over fracking and a ban on zero-hour contracts would be romping ahead in the polls.

Not the Labour Party. Of all the grim opinion polls for the party in Scotland in recent months, the latest is the worst yet: all 59 Scottish seats to go to the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Labour to pick up just 20% of the vote. That’s 22 points below what it polled in 2010. The fewer seats that Labour picks up in Scotland, of course, the more that the party will have to wheel and deal to form and maintain a UK government after the election.

Speech after speech by Scottish leader Jim Murphy and deputy Kezia Dugdale have come and gone with little result. Even Gordon Brown has had little or no discernible positive impact, whether he plays up the SNP threat to the union or, most recently, raises concerns about the Tories stoking English nationalism. The question is this: is there anything Labour and Murphy can do about this situation?

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This side of the election, the answer is probably no. Murphy could promise to ditch Trident renewal, but that is simply not going to happen. Promising to end the bedroom tax seems to have got him nowhere, ditto all those other left-of-centre policies in the Scottish Labour manifesto. At the moment the party is not in charge of the election buzz, and certainly not the day-to-day agenda. All Murphy and Labour can hope for is to fight to the end, lash themselves to the mast and ride the storm through. Big names such as Douglas Alexander and perhaps even Murphy himself may well go overboard in the process.

The diagnosis

The problem for Murphy, or whoever leads the party in Scotland after the election if he steps down, is complicated. There is the legacy of the independence referendum. The electoral health of the Liberal Democrats, long polling in the low single digits, illustrates the fate of a party that allies itself to the Conservatives (the original toxic brand of modern Scottish politics). Now this stain seems to have rubbed off on Scottish Labour. The political activity of the indyref campaign has left Labour wide open to the charge that it stood shoulder-to shoulder with the Tories.

Some elements of the Labour brand have also looked increasingly toxic to Scottish voters since the referendum. Spending £100bn on Trident in an age of austerity, or promising to match Tory cuts, does not sit well, especially with the number of food banks soaring to ever greater heights.

Past baggage matters here too. The New Labour brand was never as popular in Scotland, and Blairite supporters such as Murphy could always expect a rough ride. When he speaks about ensuring free higher education, for instance, a policy he voted to introduce in England, he can never sound sincere. Accusations that Scottish Labour is simply a branch office of the London party have also been very difficult to shake off. Bringing in a new leader from the House of Commons may have turned SNP fortunes a decade ago, but different party, different times.

All these difficulties have allowed the SNP to become the new standard-bearer of the anti-Tories, the party for a fair deal for Scotland, and of course the destination for most Yes supporters. Murphy could walk barefoot across the Clyde right now and it would do no good. People would complain that Nicola Sturgeon could do it backwards in heels. Once the election is out of the way, here are a few thoughts on what Labour could do about it.

1. Ditch Murphy

Even if Murphy hangs on in East Renfrewshire, he may have to go. The party will be looking for someone to blame, and it will probably be him. He’s too associated with the Blair years, too associated with London and too associated with campaigning alongside the Tories for the No vote.

Scottish Labour needs a leader who is free of such millstones. The new leader’s strategy should begin and end with a simple mission statement: to become Scotland’s champion.

2. Stick with the differentiation strategy

In the same way the Scottish Tories have debated whether they should cut ties with London and start a new centre-right party (and decided against), there is an argument that Scottish Labour needs to do the same. I think it would be a mistake. Too many old activists are allied to the old party. Some people would feel betrayed; others would feel it was just a rebranding exercise.

The better strategy is to essentially do what Murphy has already been doing. Differentiate yourself from London wherever possible, take different policy positions and make yourself distinctive. It’s the right policy but by the wrong leader at the wrong time.

3. Slaughter a sacred calf

The two most obvious sacred calves are independence and Trident. It wouldn’t work for the party to either back independence or take a neutral line that allowed individuals within the party to express their own views (such as in the 1975 referendum on the European Common Market).

If you are centre-left in Scottish politics and pro-independence, there is already a party for you. Why would you stay in Labour when you could join the SNP? The party should keep emphasising that it has consistently delivered on devolution and stick to its positions on delivering the Smith Commission proposals for more powers and a constitutional convention for the UK.

Trident looks like the one policy where changing it could win a lot of people back. It wouldn’t prevent the UK party from renewing Trident if the Scottish contingent were against it, so there is no reason to insist that Scotland falls into line. The next leader should think very seriously about the potential here.

4. Hold out for 2016

In next year’s Scottish parliament election, the SNP will have to defend its record in government. Labour may benefit both from being the challenger and from the fact that the focus will be on internal Scottish affairs.

Much will be about chipping away at the SNP claim to be Scotland’s progressive party. We saw an example with fracking this week, where the SNP came under pressure for refusing to say how long its temporary ban would last. Other avenues might include further education, which has been drastically cut, while the SNP trumpet the policy of free higher education; the NHS, where performance could be better; and Police Scotland, the unified force whose failures Sturgeon has had to defend.

A lot will depend on what happens in May and what comes after, of course. A minority Labour government generally supported by a large SNP presence would make the latter party more accountable next year. In other words it could actually, in some strange way, help Scottish Labour chances 12 months down the road.