Next Labour leader needs to win back England, not Scotland

We Scots are a pretty self-involved bunch when it comes to politics.

The independence referendum had world leaders pleading for us to stay part of the UK. The general election saw international media descend on the country they assured us was about to hold the balance of power in the House of Commons. Scotland, its constitutional future, and the fortunes of its main political party have been at the centre of British politics for the past year.

It would be hard not to let it all go to our heads.

The real shock of the election for Scotland was not the SNP landslide, for that was widely predicted, but the unexpected Conservative majority. After months of telling ourselves the SNP would “hold Westminster’s feet to the fire” and ensure a greater package of powers for the Scottish Parliament, we find ourselves marginalised in the Commons. The Nationalists form the third party but have no power and no leverage. Suddenly, the world doesn’t revolve around us anymore.

This is long overdue, for English voters must be sick of hearing about the Barnett formula, referendum triple-locks, and the Smith Commission. There is a justified feeling that England has drawn the short straw in all the constitutional jiggery-pokery going on in the last few years. When is it going to be about them?

This is a lesson the Labour Party must learn, and quickly, if it is to be in with a chance of winning the next election — or at least losing it more respectably. Their Scottish heartlands are gone and the only feasible path to power in the medium term is success in the English marginals. In short, Labour has to focus on England and forget about Scotland for the time being.

Everyone understands the size of the defeat Scottish Labour suffered four weeks ago. The party claimed its lowest share of the vote since the 1918 election and went from 40 seats to one, a worse performance in terms of seats than the Labour Representation Committee managed when it stood in Scotland in 1906.

But while the scale is evident, the depth has yet to settle in. Between 2010 and 2015, Labour managed to misplace 330,000 votes in Scotland, an 18% share drop. In 30 of the 40 Labour seats lost on election night, the SNP won more than 50% of the vote. The smallest Nationalist majority is 3,718 in East Renfrewshire and the largest 19,701 in Falkirk, making for an average across these seats of 9000.

This was no fluke. It was a generational shift. Winning across the UK could take a decade. Across Scotland… who knows?

Labour leadership candidate Yvette Cooper came to Glasgow on Friday to meet party activists and also to sit down with voters who switched to the SNP in May. The “listening exercise” is surely an instrument of torture devised by political strategists to get their own back on the boss for calling them too much on their weekends off. The poor wretch whose party has just lost an election or suffered a bloody nose in a by-election is despatched to somewhere vividly dire like Stoke-on-Trent or Kilmarnock. There they either meet a carefully selected group of sympathisers, which is deathly dull, or submit themselves to the horrors of the general public, which at best involves fielding gripes about scrounging immigrants and surly doctors’ receptionists and in Scotland means strange little men screaming “Red Tories out” in your face.

Who knows what form Cooper’s meeting took – there were no cameras allowed – but I imagine the responses ranged from depressing to unprintable. Labour might want to listen to Scotland but Scotland doesn’t want to be in the same room as Labour.

Her rivals Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Andy Burnham, and Jeremy Corbyn will likely follow her north of the border. They have to be seen to be engaging with this ongoing political and constitutional headache. But if they are smart, they will drop in and get back out soon. There is nothing for them here.

Every hour spent in Scotland is an hour wasted. Every pitch to a hostile electorate up here is a pitch that could be more usefully made to voters in Milton Keynes or Leicestershire. Every pander to Scotland is a snub to Middle England. If anything good can come of the Caledonian catastrophe it will be Labour’s acknowledgement that it can’t continue to use Scotland as a battering ram to force its way into Number 10.

Scottish Labour offered voters a robust social democratic manifesto in May, the most left-of-centre prospectus Labour has run on since the days of Neil Kinnock’s leadership. It made not a jot of difference and there is scant evidence to suggest that will change any time soon. Labour can have all the policies it wants. The SNP has the flag and for now that matters more.

Party members who will choose which of the four candidates takes them into the 2020 election must confront these truths. It won’t be easy for them to hear and it will go against their instincts of solidarity, which apply as much to their party as to their country. There is also a powerful emotional attachment to Scotland given its historical role in the development of democratic socialism in Great Britain. Labour is a Unionist party and will seek to win across the UK for as long as the UK exists. But it has to be a pragmatic party too. Just as Labour learned (slowly and painfully) that it had to shift to the centre ground to win, now it must shift to the political centre of gravity in the South and the Midlands.

The SNP will crow that Labour has given up on Scotland but this is a battleground which must be left largely to the Scottish party. Absent a UK leader of real stature, such as a Blair or Brown, Scotland is not going to be won back from London and England will not be prised from the Tories by appeasing Scottish demands.

The Scottish lion may have roared but England has three lions and they’ve been tame for long enough.

Originally published on STV News.

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