Scottish Labour needs
to turn to the
Margaret Curran took to the campaign trail in the Glasgow East by-election saying: 'If you want a job done properly, ask a busy woman'. Her pithy soundbite alluded to the fact that local councillor George Ryan had been Labour's first-choice candidate. She only entered the running after he pulled out at the last moment.
Curran went on to lose by 326 votes to the SNP's John Mason. It was the biggest upset in Scottish politics since Labour's mauling in Govan 20 years earlier. That defeat could have been the end of her political career, but she got up and threw herself into the task of winning the seat back in the general election. If she were a boxer, rather than a politician, we would say she has heart.
She enlisted everyone from the chancellor Alistair Darling, who visited the constituency at her behest, through to the students who spent hours knocking on doors and delivering leaflets for her. Now, she is one of six MPs from the 2010 intake who have been promoted into the shadow cabinet. After just 18 months in the House of Commons, she has shoved aside more experienced, if duller, male colleagues.
Until May, I was part of her backroom team in the Scottish Parliament. It is fair to say she could be a demanding person to work for. She fizzes with energy. Just now her drive and commitment are exactly what Scottish Labour needs. But it won't be enough in itself. Breathing some life back into the party after last May's crushing defeat by the SNP is going to be a huge task. A glance at her own constituency helps explain why. Shettleston and Garthamlock were once dotted with coalmines and the industry employed one-in-10 of the male working population. At its peak, Parkhead Forge also provided jobs for 20,000 skilled men. Now, United Biscuits is the largest employer in the constituency with just 800 staff and the official unemployment rate is more than twice the national average.
One of the consequences of deindustrialisation is that trade unions have lost tens of thousands of members and no longer play such a central role in the social life of our communities. In many parts of Scotland, local Labour Party branches have gone the same way as the pits and the steel works. Just a handful of elderly members remain.
Scottish Labour now faces the task of rebuilding with fewer members,
fewer local councillors and, incidentally, fewer professional campaign
staff. The only solution is to start again.
The decline in party membership has been a long-term process, masked by the professionalisation of political campaigning, but the consequences are amplified by the self-inflicted harm done to Labour councillors. Jack McConnell's decision to give way to the Liberal Democrats over PR led to a dramatic change in the composition of Scottish local government, largely at his own party's expense. In the local government elections four years ago, the number of Labour councillors dropped from 509 to 348. In contrast, the SNP doubled their representation from 181 to 363, despite increasing their vote by just 3.8%. Those extra councillors have helped the SNP put down roots in communities that traditionally supported Labour.
Scottish Labour now faces the task of rebuilding with fewer members, fewer local councillors and, incidentally, fewer professional campaign staff. The only solution is to start again. In contrast to the 'New Labour' years, the debate must be led from the bottom up. It is time for party members to get involved and find their voice. Whether we like it or not, the independence referendum is going to be the dominating issue of Alex Salmond's second term in office. Curran needs to think long and hard about how she will fight this campaign.
In his recent speech at Stirling University, the shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander spoke of his fear that the referendum would become 'simply a fight between William Wallace and the bogey man'. A negative scaremongering campaign will do lasting damage to Scottish Labour's reputation and reinforce the caricature of a party that has run out of ideas. Instead, Scottish Labour needs to reconnect with its own values. Curran should set out her stall as neither a nationalist nor a unionist – but as a socialist.
A recent report on Al Jazeera highlighted the fact that in some parts of Glasgow East male life expectancy is just 54. To help people cope with the recession, charities are planning to hand out emergency food parcels at benefit offices. Those involved deserve praise for their good work, but as Nye Bevan once said, 'private charity is no substitute for organised justice'. Scottish Labour's job is to offer a home to anyone, regardless of their views on the constitution, who believes that there's something better. Curran also needs to get people talking.
Whoever is elected as the new Scottish Labour leader in December will play a big part in setting the tone of the conversation but a double act with Johann Lamont could offer something fresh and new. The last Glaswegian to lead the party was Donald Dewar – now it's the girls' turn.
Andrew McFadyen has a PhD in political science from Edinburgh University. He is a freelance journalist and a former adviser to the Scottish Labour Party