Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Scottish Labour has to find its mission

I was asked to write some advice to Johann Lamont MSP and Anas Sarwar MP, our new leaders of the Scottish Labour party.

To be honest it’s not been an easy article to write. In fact the more I thought about it the more I am convinced getting elected as leader and deputy was the easy bit.

Let’s face it: the task ahead is a big one. Lest we forget, Labour suffered a crushing defeat in the 2011 Scottish parliament election, the worst share of the constituency vote since 1918.

And, conversely, the SNP won an outright majority under a PR system designed to ensure such a victory could never happen. The SNP can genuinely call themselves the party of Scotland and they are still riding high. The latest polls put them twice as popular as Labour.

The only positive is that Scottish Labour has woken up to the scale of the task.

We can say for sure that Scottish Labour will not regain its confidence by finding a narrative or getting a political strategy or repositioning itself against the SNP.

Scottish Labour could easily be out of power for a decade. The idea that changing a leader and rethinking our position on ‘minimum alcohol pricing’ or ‘devo-max’ will be enough to change our electoral fortunes is pie in the sky.

Scottish Labour has to find its mission.

Labour does best when hungry to make real improvements to the lives of ordinary people. Whether it was setting up the NHS, the Open University, large-scale school and college building programmes, universal early years education, civil partnerships, the minimum wage, mass council housing or devolution and constitutional change.

Scottish Labour can take inspiration from this but must now think beyond 2015, identify the next challenges facing Scotland, and think big.

They have made a promising start, with ambitious plans to tackle the growing crisis in youth unemployment. The fact that so many young people leave school with no future prospects is an utter disgrace.

This is a perfect example of where Scottish Labour can lead the politics of our next generation. Like we have done before.

Scotland doesn’t need a policy – it needs a national crusade to tackle youth unemployment. Scottish Labour should lead with a bold and radical vision to end it. For good.

Promise every young person the right to training, an apprenticeship, free education from age three up to age 25; say every company with over 100 employees will be forced to take on school leavers;  say we will persuade the armed forces and professional football clubs to play their part; promise to break open access to higher and further education once and for all; encourage young people to go on gap years, to create, play sport or volunteer; and give them as many chances as they need to find their right path.

A promise like this will change lives, excite the party and may give Scottish Labour a fighting chance at the next election.

Labour can then go to the people of Scotland, hand on heart, and ask them not to vote Labour, but to vote Labour to abolish youth unemployment. We can tell them, hand on heart, that Labour do not believe in Scotland. We believe in a better Scotland.

And of course, it will also mean our opponents would have to explain what they will do for Scotland’s young people. And while they are doing that, Scottish Labour can consider what to do about inequality.

Of course, changing Scotland for the better starts with changing ourselves. And, let’s face it, we have a big job to make our party fit for purpose. We must get rid of all the indulgences, the fractiousness and the briefing – and seek to build a unity of purpose around our vision for a more equal, ambitious, Scotland. And this can only be achieved with the cooperation of all our elected representatives working with members, the trade unions, affiliates and all those well beyond who call themselves Labour.

And this message is also for Labour UK. Hopefully they too will wake up to the scale of the task. In a few years we will face one of the most important political events in my lifetime: the independence referendum.

If Labour loses, who knows what will happen next? If Salmond loses, who knows what will happen next?

So my advice is simple. Identify the challenges for the next generation. Reject populism and build a programme for government based on our history and values.

But most importantly, relax. There is no point getting upset about it all. We brought this on ourselves. And people don’t vote for people they don’t like. And people don’t like grumpy sore losers.

In fact, there is much to look forward to. Look on the bright side. These are exciting times to be in Scottish politics. Be positive. Set out plans to change our country. Then trust the people of Scotland.


Danny Phillips is an independent writer and researcher for campaigning organisations in Scotland. He was special adviser to first minister Jack McConnell 2003-2007


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Danny Phillips

is an independent writer and researcher for campaigning organisations in Scotland. He was special adviser to first minister Jack McConnell 2003-2007


  • Scottish Labour will be out of power for 9 years. The next Scottish Parliament elections will be in May 2016, (a 5 year term) because of the 5 year fixed term at Westminster till 2015.
    Best chance of an earlier Scottish Parliament election would be if the Coalition falls.
    Agree the SP election was bad for Scottish Labour, however the Labour Vote dropped by only 0.4% from 2007 in a lower voter turn of just over 50% of the electorate.
    The collapse of the Tory and in particular the Lib Dem vote was significant in many constituencies.
    The coalition parties collapse in the Regional lists particularly the Highlands and North East of Scotland are ares of Scotland where the Scottish Labour vote is weaker.
    Indeed Bill Butler in Anniesland/North West Glasgow lost his seat to the SNP by 7 votes while the Communist Party candidate took over two hundred votes away probably from Scottish Labour.
    The other loss to the SP was the the relatively high number of MSPs from the smaller parties ie Greens etc on the Regional Lists.
    The voting system has so far benefited smaller parties on the Regional Lists but clearly the double vote for the SNP along with the anti Tory/Lib Dem Coalition vote swept the SNP into power.
    Scottish Labour’s wake up call is that every constituency is Scotland matters and the challlenge with this system is to get people voting twice for Scottish Labour.

  • Labour will only be re-elected when they offer a more attractive vision to Scotland than what the SNP is offering. Instead, labour is trying to fight for keeping Scotland governed by a Tory-led UK government.

    The people of Scotland will get to vote on independence in 2014 and already the question is being categorised as ‘Home Rule or Tory Rule.”

    Labour’s position is to prefer Tory rule.

    unless that position changes, they deserve all that the electors do to them.

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