If Labour wants to win in 2015, it will need to turn left in Scotland

Can Labour make Ed-way in Scotland? Lynne Cameron

While the dust settles on the proposals just published by the Smith Commission into extending new powers to the Scottish parliament, attention now turns to the final key political event north of the border this side of Christmas: the Scottish Labour leadership election, which concludes on December 13.

There has already been much written about the demise of the party, its impending wipe-out come the 2015 general election and the fact that Jim Murphy will easily defeat his rivals Scottish health shadow Neil Findlay and local government shadow Sarah Boyack.

In fact none of these assertions are certainties. What is certain is that the party is facing a Rubicon moment on the direction it will pursue to try to revive its electoral fortunes. Not only will this determine who governs Scotland in the coming years, it may well dictate whether Labour forms the next UK government.

Scottish leadership contenders left to right: Sarah Boyack, Neil Findlay and Jim Murphy. Andrew Milligan

Contrasting options

There are two broad strategies being advocated – not necessarily by the candidates but by their supporters. The first seeks to strengthen the links between the industrial and political wings of the labour movement by focusing on the key policy issues of our day – the scourge of youth unemployment, the crisis in living standards and access to secure work. Findlay is seen as most closely associated with this way of thinking, since he in particular has been prioritising these issues by proposing to tackle zero-hours contracts and promote a living wage.

The strategy incidentally also aimed to be radical on the constitutional agenda so that Labour wasn’t offering less than the Liberals, Tories and SNP as part of the Smith Commission process – this side won the argument that Labour should back full income tax devolution to Scotland for example, but lost over personal allowances (it is worth noting that Jim Murphy also came out in favour of devolving income tax).

The rationale is about winning back former Labour voters who either voted Yes in the recent referendum or have made the transition from voting for the SNP in Scottish parliament elections to also being prepared to vote for them in UK elections. Principally for these reasons Scotland’s largest trade unions including Unite, Unison and GMB endorsed Findlay’s candidature. The unions are one of the three blocs along with party members and elected members in Scotland that will decide who wins next week.

The second strategy, championed by those close to Murphy’s campaign, aims to anchor Scottish Labour in the political centre ground. It is about making the “squeezed middle” the top priority, which would mean targeting middle-class liberal voters and people who are uncomfortable with the SNP’s perceived left turn under Nicola Sturgeon, partly on the logic that they are more likely to vote than the disillusioned working class. Hence you would expect an offering that focuses on things like cutting stamp duty or freezing council tax rather than policies that would benefit the poorest.

Why left is right this time

John McTernan, the former Tony Blair adviser who is a key supporter of Murphy, was absolutely correct to argue just after the referendum that a key portion of the 45% Yes vote came from “the non-home-owning working class” who are “the victims of globalisation”. Yet he was less convincing when he said that “there is no electoral victory available by moving to the left of the Labour Party.”

The problem is that many people who Labour need to convince to return to the fold and retain rightly or wrongly see the SNP as being more radical and to the political left of Labour on a number of key policy issues. And regardless of the fact that there is strong evidence to the contrary such as the SNP’s reactionary corporation tax proposals, this perception has been enhanced by Sturgeon’s ascent.

Focusing on the centre ground also betrays a distinct lack of overarching vision, leading to a US-style situation where there is so much convergence between the two parties that voter turnout continually falls. It is based on a series of singular policy initiatives which in themselves may relieve the side effects of globalisation but never effectively aim to deal with them as part of a coherent strategy. In contrast the Scottish referendum turnout showed that where there is a proper choice, people really do care.

Sarah Boyack’s vision appears to walk a line between these two positions. Her main focus has been on decentralising power to local authorities and communities, but all leadership candidates have now embraced it – along with the concept of more control over the party’s affairs in Scotland.

When next Saturday comes …

It boils down to a question of which candidate gives Scottish Labour the best opportunity to revive its electoral fortunes and which gives the clearest idea of what the party should stand for. The question of who is perceived to be the “strongest leader” gets lazily and positively correlated with electoral success, and is mostly being attached to Murphy mainly for his higher public profile.

Strength of leadership is of course a desirable attribute to your peers and the public, but it is not the key issue facing Labour in Scotland. The real question is what the party stands for post-referendum. Choosing the “strongest leader” will ultimately prove counter-productive unless the correct strategy is pursued. Since the electoral evidence suggests that to recapture Labour voters, the party needs a strategy which unapologetically prioritises the most economically deprived communities in Scotland – particularly in our great cities. This requires championing access to secure and rewarding employment in today’s globalised world.

Miliband and Douglas Alexander get laddish. Stefan Rousseau/PA

Many in the trade union movement believe that if Murphy does win, which the bookmakers still believe is the most likely outcome, he will go after the “squeezed middle”. If so, it would be a grave mistake. The risk for the centre strategy in this politically awakened Scotland is that turnout may well remain high. That will make those disillusioned Labour voters more important than usual, and turn conventional campaigning logic on its head.

To use a football analogy, if Labour pursues this dangerous game of turning defence into attack away from home then you better make sure you are not even more vulnerable to a counter-attack and you better have good control in the game if you are to find the striker with a pass in front of goal. Even then you may fail to score. This is why on balance, when next Saturday comes, the unions will be rooting for Findlay.

The Conversation is a non-profit + your donation is tax deductible. Help knowledge-based, ethical journalism today.