How to Win Votes and Influence Scotland (in Nine Weeks)

John Morgan and Albie Mills discuss the task facing the new Scottish Labour Leader ahead of the results of the election this weekend.

The new Scottish Labour leader, announced this weekend, has an unenviable task. With an election campaign already underway, they have to grasp hold of the party and present an electable face to the electorate all at one time. Here, we offer some thoughts on how they may do so.

Cooperation with UK Labour

Scottish politicians need to be across the grid going into the next elections. For the past year, Nicola Sturgeon has stood up at midday on each working day of the week and delivered a daily briefing. Even though the impacts of Scotland’s pandemic have been similarly severe, when compared to the UK Government’s strategy of calling a press conference at two hours’ notice, and often turning up late - it is no wonder that Scots have felt reassured by her leadership.

In a media atmosphere where Nicola Sturgeon is front-and-centre, coverage is everything. Any Scottish Labour leader would find it hard to breathe the oxygen of publicity in normal times, but the pandemic has made it nigh on impossible. While BBC One Scotland carries Politics Scotland and First Minister’s Questions each Wednesday, these are broadcast right in the middle of the day, when viewing figures are low. BBC Scotland’s flagship nightly current affairs programme, The Nine (imagine a Scottish Newsnight) has experienced meagre viewing figures since it began (it takes less than 1% of an audience share at times).

This inability to even be recognized- in a poll last July, 60% of Scots had no opinion on Richard Leonard- will continue to hamper Scottish Labour until MSPs are put on a UK-wide platform. This needs to involve using media-trained Labour MSPs on the national communications grid, the chart that determines which politician will be rolling out the party’s line morning, noon and night. While Scottish politicians’ role in wider UK politics has often been an awkward one, regional leaders like Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham have become heroes in their respective cities and there is no reason why Scottish Labour’s Shadow Cabinet should not be appearing regularly on Breakfast, Today, GMB and Newsnight to address the Scottish people via national channels (or, rather, the channels that they actually watch).  

Talk about what Labour is doing elsewhere

The good thing about your heartlands lying in devolved regions and (one) nation is that you’ll often have successes to point to at a local level. It is no coincidence that Boris Johnson’s premiership has coincided with a surge in support for independence and the SNP. The SNP would have Scotland believe that the choice lies between Sturgeon and Johnson. The more the UK looks like a one-party state, the more Scotland does as well.

As pointed out in the first part of this article, Scottish Labour needs to stop looking irrelevant. One of the best ways to do this would be to claw back a sizeable number of seats in the House of Commons. While we cannot do that until 2024, the most effective way of doing so is to try to highlight the successes of Labour in Wales, as well as London, Manchester and other regions and mayoralties. Welsh Labour have managed to maintain the ‘clear red water’ that means they are not as tarnished by aspects of New Labour’s legacy as the Scottish party are. In a time where health policy has been so important, Welsh Labour’s ‘soft nationalism’ has kept prescriptions free and kept private sector involvement in the NHS to a minimum. The Future Generations (Wales) Act of 2015 is an example of innovative, long-term policy to create a more prosperous, equal and sustainable Wales, the kind of vision that Scotland is crying out for at the moment and a space that the independence movement seems to be occupying.

The Senedd elections will also prove difficult for Labour in 2021 but they at least show that we have a majority somewhere. The perception of Scottish Labour as a spent force of irrelevancy becomes harder and harder to shift with each election cycle that leaves it languishing. Highlighting the work of Andy Burnham on homelessness, Sadiq Khan on air pollution (and maybe even Brexit) may go some way in helping rebuild our stature and image in Scotland.

COVID approach

Thus far the UK Labour leadership has straddled the balance between constructive opposition and political positioning relatively well, although some - perhaps justifiably when looking at recent poll numbers - have criticised the leadership for not acting with sufficient strength and clarity in opposition to the government’s approach.

The Scottish Labour leader has to strike a similar balance; pointing out the government’s failures where necessary but being constructive where possible. One should not and cannot make the nation’s response to COVID a political point, and yet the SNP administration’s response has not been as strong as a simple review of opinion polling would have one believe. The infection and death rates in Scotland have been amongst the highest in Western Europe, the vaccine rollout took much longer to generate momentum than in other parts of the UK, and the hit to our economy has been brutal. Public health is already devolved and so the SNP, while they may look good relative to the ineptitude coming from Number 10, have not covered themselves in glory.

The new leader must act in a constructive, future facing manner, which extends to the economic recovery following COVID. If their latest budget proposals are anything to go by, the SNP plan to continue in the same vein of tepid managerialism as their first decade in power and have decided that Scotland needs further centralisation to Edinburgh. They also do not appear to have any appetite to pursue anything close to a necessarily radical economic policy, allowing totemic industries of the future like offshore wind manufacturing to wither on the vine and underfunding the Scottish Investment Bank. This is not the way to level up our communities. Labour must advocate for more ambition in our politics.

Differentiate ourselves

Labour is not the SNP, with a central focus on altering the constitution. We are also not the Conservatives, unionist for its own sake and unambitious for what our country can become. Our new leader must, however, not simply define themselves and our party in opposition to those other forces in Scottish politics. To do so would follow the mistakes of many of our leaders from years past. Now, finally, we hope our new leader can - in the heat of an election campaign - forge a consistent picture of what Scottish Labour’s position can be. If that is, in the first instance, a force to push the SNP into a more ambitious economic and social policy then so be it.

There are green shoots starting to show in the last Parliament. Some of the most ambitious legislation in the last term came from Labour MSP’s Member’s Bills: from Monica Lennon’s groundbreaking work on period poverty, to Daniel Johnston’s work protecting shop workers from maltreatment, to Pauline McNeill’s action on rents which was voted down by an SNP too keen to retain the economic status quo. Each of these shows what can be done, constructively, in opposition. If we can continue in this vein in the next Parliament, demonstrating to the electorate that our ability and position bring change that Scotland would not otherwise benefit from then we may just start to win back the confidence of a wider number of Scots who cannot simply wait for the SNP to catch up.

Just as the Brexit divide proved almost impossible to overcome and caused Labour’s voting coalition to collapse, Scotland’s divisions over independence will cause incredible difficulties. The road ahead is not, however, impossible for Scottish Labour. Independence is holding the SNP together but, aside from that, they bear all the hallmarks of a party that has been in power for fourteen years; decadent, creaking and divided. Our suggestions are only a handful of those that have been offered to save Scottish Labour. Whoever the new leader is by the time that you are reading this, we wish them well.


John Morgan is an employment lawyer from Glasgow and Secretary of the Young Scottish Fabians

Albie Mills is a support worker in Edinburgh and Chair of the Young Scottish Fabians

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