New leader Kezia Dugdale takes her party to Perth this weekend for her first conference since succeeding Jim Murphy as Scottish Labour’s third leader in 4 years. According to recent polling, Scottish Labour is neck and neck with the Scottish Conservatives ahead of the 2016 election. Some polling companies put Labour up to 30 points behind the SNP. Strategists in Bath Street have their work cut out.
Few would have foreseen that the party which took a leading role in the victorious Better Together campaign would have been so roundly rejected at the general election in May. However, Ms Dugdale is a political realist who is under no illusions of how far her party has fallen in a relatively short space of time.
The project of making the party electable again must look beyond next May and towards the 2021 election. So as conference begins, we take a (brief) look at some of the key initiatives Kez can do to make the gathering of the party faithful a successful affair.
Re-positioning the party
We know what Scottish Labour is against. That’s pretty clear. But now is the time to set out an ambitious programme of what the party will campaign for ahead of the election next year. What are activists and members most passionate about? Scottish Labour needs to gain traction on key policy areas where the SNP are deemed weak. Leading the debate with credibility will help gain a foothold.
Manage the impact of Corbyn
Ahead of the conference Dugdale and UK leader Jeremy Corbyn signed a statement of intent to make Scottish Labour autonomous, meaning it will have control of all membership, administration and selection procedures and allow for separate policies. Scottish Labour for Scotland. Kezia must set out how it will be different, not just say it will.
She has license and a mandate to do so. She’s very safe in her job. The hard left candidate for the Scottish Labour leadership was easily defeated by Jim Murphy in a previous election. Kezia must manage the relationship with Mr Corbyn in order to deliver a respectable result in May. Scottish Social Attitudes surveys do not indicate that Scots want more left wing policies from their Governments. Ms Dugdale must keep a lid on any urge to shift to a policy platform that is pushed from the new leadership in London.
Embrace the underdog
Remarkably, 2016 will mark the first election that Scottish Labour will go into an election as the clear underdog. At this stage before the 2007 and 2011 elections, the SNP trailed by 20 points.
Therefore, expectations are low for Scottish Labour, which might work in their favour. Much of the SNP’s narrative of the past decade has been built on being the ‘outsiders’ of British politics. They are now the Scottish establishment and Labour must use that to their advantage.
Being bold, cheeky and creative with this could inject a bit of personality back into their brand. Retail politics is where the electorate is at and if you want to get back to power, you’ve got to offer the voters what they want!