Is Scottish Labour facing at least two more terms in opposition?

Scottish constituency map after 5 May 2011 <em>Picture: Barryob</em>
Scottish constituency map after 5 May 2011 Picture: Barryob
If there is a consensus among Labour figures in Scotland, it is that their party will be out of power for at least two more terms – and maybe more.

One former Labour MSP admitted privately last week that she believed her party would lose the next election and possibly even the one after that.

Another Labour figure, one of the many candidates to fail this year, gave a similar prognosis to me today. The next election has already been lost, according to them, and the one after that may also come too early for the party.

Realism or pessimism?

Interestingly, both gave similar reasons for Labour’s likely failure to make headway: “We haven’t anybody who can take on Salmond,” said one.

“There is nobody in the Labour Party who can appeal to the country as a potential leader of Scotland,” said the other.

But it isn’t just the Salmond factor. They both agreed that, if Alex Salmond were to stand down today, Nicola Sturgeon, his deputy, would lead the Nationalists to another election success, such is the paucity of options and ideas coming out of Labour north of the border.

The key to this, according to senior figures in the party, is independence: or, rather, Labour’s lack of an alternative to the SNP’s independence message.

“We haven’t come up with a coherent response and we haven’t got anybody to articulate it, even if we did,” said the failed candidate.

So what does Labour have to do?

It has to reinvent itself, completely and utterly. There is – at last – a general acceptance within Labour that the party has to learn the lessons of its defeat in the 2007 election. This includes an acknowledgement that the party failed to do so after 2007. Then, there was a general feeling that the SNP “had got lucky” by scraping home by one seat – and that tiny advantage (less than one per cent of the vote) would be overturned in 2011, when normal service would be resumed.

When that failed to happen in such spectacular style this year, the lesson did, eventually, hit home.

The party needs a new leader and it will get one: probably with Jackie Baillie.

Ms Baillie is a good, competent, experienced Holyrood stalwart. She will do well to start the change process that Labour needs – but, if the general assessment that Labour will be out of power for at least two terms is correct, she will not be the one to lead the party back to power.

It may depress her to admit it, but she may have to be the “Kinnock” for Scottish Labour, the person who initiates difficult reforms and paves the way for the Blair who will actually win.

Who that winner is, though, is hard to spot. To give the new intake their due, they haven’t yet had the chance to shine in parliament and someone may emerge as a potential leader in waiting – but there does seem to be a dearth of quality in Labour ranks.

John Park was being tipped by many as a future leader as soon as he entered parliament. He is well liked inside and outside the Labour movement – but, by masterminding Labour’s disastrous election campaign this year, he will find it difficult to recover.

There has been talk of parachuting in a heavyweight from Westminster, such as Alistair Darling, but that would only be a short-term fix. Labour needs to nurture and develop its leaders of tomorrow and it needs to start doing it now, otherwise it will find itself behind the SNP for the foreseeable future.

But the question of independence is also key.

Labour has to find a way of articulating its opposition to independence in a populist and popular way: something it has been unable to do up to now. That means making a positive case for the Union, not just banging on about an “expensive divorce”.

Mr Salmond was right when he told The Caledonian Mercury that a positive campaign would beat a negative campaign every time. That will be the way the SNP will fight the referendum campaign. It will be positive, it will be forward-looking and it will paint a picture of Scotland forging a new path in the world.

Labour have to find a way of combating that with an equally positive message for staying in the Union. If not, then it won’t matter who the leader is because, by the time Labour gets the chance to run the Scottish government again, it will be in an independent country.

The party will be helped, along the way, by Westminster elections and the tendency of many voters to back Labour for Westminster and the SNP for Holyrood, but it can’t rely on that to resurrect its fortunes.

Labour is in a mess – but, to its (limited) advantage, it has been is similar messes before: notably in 1979. It reformed, changed, became modern and, crucially, stood on a positive message.

Labour in Scotland has to do all these things and more if it is to recover.

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