I’m sure I’m not alone when I say I didn’t believe the exit polls when they were published at 10 PM on May 7th. I’m certain I was not the only one for whom flickers of uncertainty grew into a creeping dread before exploding into a fury of anger and confusion over the course of Thursday night and Friday morning. I know I was not the only one who found the fact that the United Kingdom had returned a majority Tory government and that Scotland had returned only a single Labour MP simply incomprehensible.
It was a devastating defeat. But it was also a wake-up call. For far too long, Scottish Labour has been slowly sleepwalking to its own demise. The warning signs have been there for a long time: 2007, when the SNP first took control of the Scottish Parliament; 2011, when they won a majority in a system designed to prevent such an outcome; 2014, when 45% of the Scottish populace, particularly in Glasgow, our traditional heartland, rejected Labour in favour of independence. Throughout all of this we refused to listen. Now, we must listen.
There is a somewhat justified sentiment held by many Scots that in Labour’s eyes, Scotland existed solely to obediently send 41 Labour MPs down to Westminster – nothing more, nothing less. There is a real feeling among Scots that Labour just doesn’t care. Regardless of the truth of these sentiments, it is the emotion that counts; as Lynton Crosby, the Tory’s vindicated election strategist, once said, when reason clashes with emotion, it is emotion that invariably comes out ahead. Never has that been so clearly demonstrated than in Scotland last Thursday.
All are agreed: Scottish Labour must rebuild. Where conflict arises is in how that rebuilding process should occur. There are many in the party, notably the majority of MSPs and former MPs, who, at least publicly, say that Jim Murphy is the right man for the job. Humbly, I disagree. Jim Murphy is emblematic of the problems facing the Labour Party in Scotland: Blairite, a major New Labour figure, seen as being installed by the party from London. These are the last qualities Scottish Labour needs in their leader.
Labour in Scotland needs to go in a different direction from Jim Murphy. We need to go in a direction that breaks with the past, and embraces the future. We need to go in a direction that recognises our historic achievements without trying to recreate history. We need to go in a direction that is specific to Scotland, but that doesn’t abandon the United Kingdom.
We can’t pander to nationalist myths nor promote nationalist half-truths. But we also can’t abandon the voters who have abandoned us in favour of nationalism. We must remember that so many of those who voted SNP did not truly vote for nationalism; they voted for an end to austerity, for social justice, for a real left-wing alternative to the establishment they saw Labour as a part of. With this in mind, there is only one road for Labour in Scotland that can lead us back to success.
It’s time Labour in Scotland became that bold and radical Socialist alternative once again. It’s a role we once embraced; it’s a role that still draws so many people across the United Kingdom to the Labour Party. This doesn’t mean a return to the 1980s – as society and culture changes, so too must Socialism. This isn’t something that can be done from the top down. It needs to come from the grassroots, from the people and communities across Scotland that once embraced Labour, and that made Labour the party that it is. We need to have an open, democratic, engaged discussion, not just amongst ourselves but with the people of Scotland, including those who voted Nationalist. Only then can Labour reclaim Scotland. Only then can Scotland reclaim Labour.
This won’t be an easy process – there can be no short-cuts, no easy paths. It’s that quick-fix mindset that placed Jim Murphy in the leadership, and we’ve all seen how well that worked out. If it requires a split from the UK Labour Party, then so be it. Of course, fraternal relations should be maintained, and Labour MPs elected in Scotland should vote with the rest of the Labour Party in Westminster on most issues. But we can’t let the cautious approach of the UK-wide party hold Labour back in Scotland. We must reclaim our mantle as the home of left-wing politics in Scotland and we must offer the people of Scotland the bold and radical alternative that they have demanded – or face oblivion. I just hope it’s not too late.