Labour must now find a unifying strategy which speaks to the whole country
The battle to rebuild starts today. That was the resolute message of Jim Murphy, Labour’s leader in Scotland, as he lost his seat to the Scottish National Party last night. No-one can be in any doubt that Labour faces multiple challenges as it starts the process of regrouping following last night’s unpredicted losses across the country.
To some degree, the central challenge now faced by the Party is well reflected by the loss of two seats in particular, and two of the Party’s biggest beasts: shadow foreign secretary and chair of the Party’s campaign strategy Douglas Alexander in Paisley and Renfrewshire, and the shadow Chancellor Ed Balls in Morley and Outwood. The seats faced different electoral challenges and require different responses.
How to rebuild is a difficult question which the Party must now address as it is pulled in two directions, and Labour must find a unifying strategy which speaks to the whole country and begins to repair the damage of what has been a very divisive Election campaign.
Ed Balls’s seat was the icing on the cake for the Conservative Party, who didn’t in their wildest dreams expect to take it just 24 hours ago. It reflects the fact that in England, in major target seats like Thurrock where Labour did not manage to make gains, voters tend to have a more conservative (and for now, Conservative) disposition – where often profound economic anxiety plays out in negative attitudes towards immigration which require a considered political response. The Conservatives were not far behind in Morley and Outwood in 2010, and UKIP took nearly 8,000 votes in the constituency this time round.
North of the border, however, there is a more left-wing electorate which has decisively chosen an anti-austerity Party and will naturally push Labour to the left if it is looking to rebuild its presence. Unpicking the real reasons why Scots so decisively turned away from Labour will take time to understand. But it is likely to be a complicated mix of alienation caused by the disparity in political attitudes between Scotland and the rest of the country, disillusionment with Labour, and an idealistic impression fuelled by the SNP’s campaign that a left-wing alliance between Labour and the SNP would have the numbers to block the Conservatives and give Scotland more robust representation in London. How this latter point plays out when Scottish voters wake up to a Conservative majority Government is yet to be seen.
The electoral tensions above are likely to be played out first and foremost in a leadership contest, with a new leader most probably announced at the Party conference in the Autumn. Broadly speaking this could resurrect a struggle between those who want the Party to position itself on the centre ground and trade union backed left-wingers. Ed Miliband has, for all else, managed to keep factional disputes between different wings of the Party fairly dormant over the last 5 years but it will be a challenge to unify and stop them re-emerging in the coming months. Miliband also pushed through reforms of the leadership contest process to reduce the influence of the unions (a contentious point in his narrow victory over his brother), which may have an impact on the outcome.
To some degree these tensions have always existed. Today they are exemplified. And reconciling them will require strong leadership, a clear and immediate strategy for limiting the damage in the Scottish Parliamentary Elections next year, strength in grassroots organisation, and a laser focus on winning in 2020. And as Jim Murphy suggests, this must happen from day one.