Progress | Centre-left Labour politics
Teflon tartan Tories

How Labour can turn it around in Scotland

Labour has got to turn the fortunes of the SNP and expose the party’s pitiful record in government, writes Sheila Gilmore

Remember when Tony Blair was described as the Teflon politician? It did not last very long, did it? Certainly not in comparison with Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish National party. After 11 years in government, and things not getting better (although the first minister never tires of claiming that it is better than in England), the recent polls suggest that in a Westminster election the SNP would win back most of the seats lost in the 2017 general leaving Labour with one seat and the Tories with three. The reality of a ‘real’ United Kingdom election and the choice of who forms a UK government should modify that outcome. But it shows we have a tough fight ahead, and we cannot rely on a repeat of the SNP’s complacency last year, thinking their new huge majorities were impregnable. In many of the seats where Labour won, or came near to winning, our vote did not rise much from 2015, rather the SNP vote collapsed and a Tory vote revived. Across Scotland, Labour’s number of votes rose by less than 10,000.

It suits the SNP to act minimally to bolster their argument that problems can only be solved through independence

Over summer 2018 Scottish Labour has made a series of trenchant and well evidenced criticisms of SNP policy. The 2018 school exam results in Scotland were generally seen as disappointing by educational experts. The attainment gap shows little sign of closing. Labour issued well timed statements pointing out that £400m has been cut from school budgets and teacher numbers are down. A city general practitioner surgery in Aberdeen announced this week it was closing. The SNP government response would have been met with ridicule had it come from a UK Health minister – they talked about increasing the number of medical students. It takes the best part of 10 years to get a fully trained GP and that does not even begin to address the reasons why the doctors we do have do not want to do the job.

In Scottish Labour, we are also promoting our own policies – including, for instance, a ‘Mary Barbour’ law to tackle high private rents. Barbour led rent strikes in Glasgow during the first world war and was later a Labour councillor. The SNP government passed legislation on rents which is weak and constrained by bureaucratic obstacles. It suits the SNP to act minimally to bolster their argument that problems can only be solved through independence.

To win in Scotland we need to start scratching the Teflon on these tartan Tories

Meanwhile the SNP has issued its Sustainable Growth Commission report intended to bolster the economic case for independence and answer the criticism that their case in 2014 was full of holes. The conclusion of the government’s own report is that the first 10 years of independence would need austerity measures much deeper than those of the Tories since 2010. For some diehards it does not matter, but it appears that the SNP leadership is trying to ensure the report does not get discussed at the party’s autumn conference. In fact, many of the positive recommendations in this report could be achieved using existing powers.

To win in Scotland we need to start scratching the Teflon on these tartan Tories. The SNP vote will hold up if the nationalists can continue to persuade people that they are trying hard, but are held back by the union. If the SNP is perceived to be doing the best job they can at Holyrood, this positive view of the party can spill over to votes in a UK election.

Labour’s initiatives this summer have received reasonable coverage in the Scottish media, as far as is perhaps possible in a Brexit dominated politics. But this also presents us with an opportunity and a good story to tell of the complications and risks of disentangling from an economic and social union. We need to tie all Labour’s initiatives into an overarching, loud and clear message – look at what can be done here and now in Scotland, with the powers of our Scottish parliament and with the advantages of being in the UK.

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Sheila Gilmore is parliamentary candidate for Edinburgh East and a member of the Progress strategy board

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Photo: A National Conversation / Wikimedia Commons

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Sheila Gilmore

is the former member of parliament for Edinburgh East

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