The limits of ‘traditional Labour' were revealed by the Scottish elections. Across Britain, the party has to show that it can understand aspiration, appeal to the middle classes, and remain rooted in the centre ground, Douglas Alexander tells Robert Philpot and Richard Angell

Gaelic lessons

The limits of ‘traditional Labour’ were revealed by the Scottish elections. Across Britain, the party has to show that it can understand aspiration, appeal to the middle classes, and remain rooted in the centre ground, Douglas Alexander tells Robert Philpot and Richard Angell

It has been a rollercoaster few months for the Scottish Labour party. From the hope and expectation that it could become the largest party in the Scottish parliament and displace Alex Salmond from the post of first minister, Labour watched its poll lead over the Scottish National party decline sharply over recent weeks until, by polling day, the prospects of the SNP remaining in power in Holyrood had come to be seen as inevitable.

But even with expectations so diminished, the scale of Scottish Labour’s defeat surprised and shocked many: Salmond became the leader of the first government to hold a majority in the Scottish parliament, with Labour losing seven seats and the SNP gaining 23. The outcome was compared by one Labour MSP to the party’s 1983 general election defeat.

Why, though, was Labour’s performance in Scotland so poor, and what lessons can the party throughout Britain learn as it attempts to recover from its heavy defeat at last year’s general election? The shadow foreign secretary and MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South Douglas Alexander is perhaps uniquely placed to answer these two questions. As Scottish secretary during Tony Blair’s government, he led Labour’s campaign in the 2007 Scottish parliamentary elections when, against expectations, the party fought the SNP to a virtual score-draw. And Alexander has also been at the forefront of Labour’s national campaigns for the past decade, acting as campaign co-ordinator during the 2001 general election, and again after 2007.

Alexander places the blame for the party’s defeat in Scotland squarely at the feet of what he terms ‘traditional Labour’ and believes that this has implications that go beyond Scotland: ‘In the end the Labour campaign presented traditional Labour: nothing for people to object to but too little [to] seize the agenda. It should be a lesson for Labour right across the country that our traditional support and our traditional strategy aren’t enough even in places which people think of as traditionally Labour.’

While he accepts that the party’s campaign faced a formidable enemy in the SNP – with its high-profile leader, clear strategy, bountiful resources, and the backing of News International – Alexander believes Labour was fatally wounded by its lack of support among the Scottish middle class. Dismissing the perception of many people in England that because Scotland traditionally votes Labour it is overwhelmingly working class, he ascribes the party’s defeat to the fact that ‘large numbers of middle class voters chose the SNP and rejected Labour’.

Scottish Labour, believes the former international development secretary, needs to recognise the importance of ‘a politics of national purpose and personal aspiration’. He recalls the kind of candidates Labour managed to get elected in 1987 during the height of the Thatcherite hegemony: Alistair Darling, a leading advocate; Lawrence Moonie, a psychiatrist; Brian Wilson, a newpaper proprietor; and the brain surgeon Sam Galbraith. Such candidates ‘reflected an embrace from the Scottish middle class for a party that they believed understood their lives and aspirations’.

Alexander welcomes Ed Miliband’s decision to set up a review of the Scottish Labour party, but cautions that ‘the process of rebuilding and renewing should start with a fundamental root-and-branch review, not end with a fundamental root and branch review.’ He also rejects the notion that the party’s defeat was primarily the result of poor organisation. ‘This was not simply an organisational defeat, it was a political defeat exacerbated by organisational weakness. And our challenge is to start with the politics and to address the organisation as we go’ he argues.

Alexander’s warning about the limits of ‘traditional Labour’ and lost middle-class support is coupled with a call for the party beyond Scotland to be in ‘the future business, the aspiration business’. The SNP’s victory, built ‘not so much upon a record in government as a story about the future’, should remind Labour, he says, that it has only won elections ‘when it has better understood the future, like in 1945, 1964 and 1997′. Warning that the party at Westminster should not believe that concentrating its fire on the coalition’s policies will be enough to bring it victory at the next election, Alexander suggests: ‘If we limit ourselves to an analysis of the present rather an account of the future, it is not just limiting in terms of policy, it is limiting in terms of electoral and political appeal.’

But Alexander does not appear to believe that Labour’s account of the future requires a welter of premature policy announcements. Speaking of the result in Scotland, he argues that the SNP victory was ‘won more on the success of sentiment, emotion and feeling than the detail of policy, record and manifesto’. Thus while Labour’s structure, organisation and policies in Scotland must all be reviewed, the party also needs to recognise the importance of ‘shaping a mission for Scottish Labour that accords with a sense of the future of Scotland’. Both north and south of the border, argues Alexander, ‘We need to give people confidence that we get it as surely as we give people confidence that we have a vision of the country’s future. The questions that people were asking on the doorstep were on the detail of policy but as a sense we shared their aspirations for their families, community and country.’

The urgency of the task that the shadow foreign secretary outlines was underscored by the results of the English local elections in general and the resilience of the Tory vote in particular. They demonstrate, he says, that Labour has ‘made some progress but we need to make more’. While welcoming the party’s victories in places like Gravesham and North Warwickshire, Labour’s former campaigns coordinator also cautions that the elections were being fought from a very low base. And while the task of recovery from Labour’s worst defeat in decades was ‘never going to be completed in the first year of the parliament’, he also calls for ‘an urgency to reviewing our policy, renewing our party, strengthening our organisation, strengthening our finances and being clear in our critique of what this coalition is getting right and what it is getting wrong.’

The strength of the Tory performance should also serve as a warning to Labour about who its real opponents at the next general election will be, suggests Alexander. The results underline the fact that in many Westminster parliamentary seats the beneficiaries of a collapse in the Liberal Democrat vote are the Tories, not Labour. Labour needs, therefore, to assess where best to train its fire: ‘While people may enjoy baiting Liberals, the urgent task is to beat the Conservatives. I think Labour activists should see winning support from Liberals as the hors d’oeuvre not the main course because the mortal threat to the prospects of a Labour government being elected at the next general election, is not – with respect – Nick Clegg, it is David Cameron and George Osborne.’

The fundamental dynamic of the next election, believes Alexander, will come down to a ‘binary choice’ across much of the country. The Liberal Democrats’ strategy – ‘of private obedience and public disagreement’ – will be of far less significance to the eventual outcome than whether Labour ‘has a better story to tell about Britain’s future than the Conservative party’ he argues. The challenge for Labour is thus to win back lost supporters and Liberal Democrat voters, but also former Conservative voters. In order to do that, the party must be ‘determined to contest and win the centre ground of British politics. It means a Labour party determined to win seats like Worcester, Lincoln, Waveney and Chatham. It means a Labour party that is not content with the spoils of Liberal defeat but focused on Conservative defeat.’

But to achieve this Labour nationally has, once again, something to learn from the fate of Scottish Labour in understanding ‘the relative importance of politics and policy’. In Scotland, the party had a series of ‘bite-sized’ individual policies with popular appeal. However, argues Alexander, ‘these proved insufficient to the task of defeating a different narrative and a different sentiment’. This, then, should be ‘an important guide’ to where Labour should aim to be at this stage of the parliament: ‘our focus should be on politics and on defining where we stand and for what we stand in the mind of the voters.’

Central to this will be ‘securing moments of re-evaluation when people are obliged to acknowledge the positions we are taking as something not what they had otherwise expected’. One of the key opportunities for Labour to secure one of these such moments will be this autumn’s party conference, when the national media will turn its gaze from the coalition and its internal wranglings to assess the party’s performance a year after its general election defeat and Miliband’s election as leader. ‘We as members of the shadow cabinet need to be working now to make sure that we communicate a clear sense of direction, momentum, urgency when we gather in the coming conference’, suggests Alexander. If anyone doubted that before 5 May, few could dispute it now.

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  • Dr D Ben Rees

    Douglas Alexander has not answeref the most obvius question- Why does he and others like him prefer Westminster to politics in his home turf -you would think he would prefer to be Prime Minister of Scotland that an opposition spokesman in London.It is true od Danny Alexander etc for the liberals.We are going to loose Scotland in the Union if politicians are not going to stand against President Salmond.

  • Mickelmas

    Douglas Alexander’s explanation of Labour’s deplorable results in the Scottish elections is akin to a dodgy 2nd-hand car salesman trying to justify selling a ‘pig-in-a-poke’. Using excuses like “we were ‘traditiional Labour’” or “we need to set up a review” is totally pathetic. Why did Gray and Miliband fail to comprehend the wishes of Scottish voters, particularly non-Labour and non-SNP voters. The ‘good’ news from Scotland is that Labour support was equal to 2007. The ‘bad’ news is that too many Scottish Lib Dem and other voters preferred to cast their lot with the SNP. Why? Might I suggest that any political party that guarantees to improve personal well-being (whether justified or not) will inevitably gain support. The important question is for Labour is “who in the Labour party was culpable in misjudging voters’ intentions?” Neither Gray nor Miliband comes out of this debacle with any dignity. When is Labour going to engage AND persuade voters to Labour policies rather than assume that voter opinion is accurately represented by either the media or “public opiniion polls?”.

  • Anonymous

    when? eerr, Michaelmas.

  • Alan W

    “In Scotland the party had a series of bite-sized individual policies with popular appeal” They were “bite-sized” cause most of them were scrawled on the back of a fag packet just a few weeks before the election. And the rest were openly swiped from the SNP. Hardly surprising that the Labour campaign looked like they were making it up on the hoof. Also to claim Labour’s problems in Scotland were all about a failure to appeal to the “aspirational” middle-class is hugely simplistic. The idea that Labour lost seats like Glasgow Shettleston because of a flight of middle-class voters is fanciful in the extreme. That they hung on to a seat like Eastwood also runs counter to this narrative. It’s all fine and well saying that Labour needs to appeal to the centre-ground. But in Scotland Labour need to recognise that the centre ground lies noticeably to the left of where it is in Surrey. So which centre-ground is Douglas Alexander suggesting the party in Scotland should aim for? Cause if it it’s the home counties version the SNP will be delighted.

  • John McLeod

    I could not disagree more with Mr Alexander that Labour lost in the Scottish Elections due to the ‘traditional Labour’ approach. I for one would not want to lose the ‘traditional’ approach but this could work hand in hand with Mr Alexander’s aspirations to appeal more to the Middle Class. Every party should approach an Election, not to single out a certain class of person to appeal to, they should focus on encompassing the needs of all their electorate. Today the media is everything and an important tool in any Party’s campaign so therefore charasmatic characters with a clever advertising campaign will win Elections. Finally three little words engage, engage, engage.

  • Spirit Leveller

    I’m afraid the basic premise of this article simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, Dougie. The very ‘ideas’ and approach you advocate were central to the that travesty of a manifesto you wrote for the Party for the 2010 General Election. I wonder if you’ve ever thought that our mean-spirited and desperate attempts to appeal to the 40% of the 60% who go out to vote, such as “Housing Benefit will be reformed to ensure that we do not subsidise people to live in the private sector on rents that other ordinary working families could not afford. And we will continue to crack down on those who try to cheat the benefit system”, have anything to do with our failure to capture the attention and faith of the electorate; or is the idea of actually being wrong about something to much of a mental leap to make? The people of this country need and want a Labour Party defined by democratic socialist values, a Party that they know will defend the interests of the many and not the few; not a second rate Conservative Party that views power as an end in itself and not a means by which to change people’s lives for the better. Sadly, Dougie, you have no answer to how we can achieve this.

  • Seon Caimbeul

    Well said Spirit Leveller. Having destroyed traditional Labour by pandering to the Tory, English nationalist vote, Alexander and the New Labour crowd have a cheek blaming traditional Labour for their failures. Labour have moved so far to the right that the SNP now represent the Left. The SNP now represent consensus. What’s this got to do with Gaelic? The language is mentioned in the headline but isn’t discussed in the article.

  • Uglyfatbloke

    Possibly labour’s failure to address democratic reform and embarce a civil liberty agenda to undo Brown’s authoritarian ‘Daily Mail -snivelling’ night be an issue….reclassifying cannabis on the basis of perverted and/or invented science instead of legalising it for mecial purpose and lregulating it for recreational use cost us more than a million voters – they may not have voted for the tories/libs/nats, but they may never vote labour again and who is to blame them? Perhpas even more imprtantly, faillure to pursue the wishes and aspirations of the elctorate is suicidal- the Calman report was totally ambition-free and most people do want democratic reform, just not an AV fudge. Equally, Labour has failed to protect the Union – the setting-up of the ‘Supreme Court’ and the removal of 6000 Sq. miles of seabed from Scottish to Englsih adminsitration are just the tip of the iceberg. Standing up for the Union has to mean more than simply attacking he nats. Doing dumb things does not help….sending Ed Balls north to attack Salmond on economics….seriously guys; how to shoot yourselff in the foot in one easy lesson.