It is no great secret that post-devolution, Scottish Labour have struggled to create a separate identity from the central UK party. With Labour MPs still commanding impressive majorities in Scottish constituencies and, up to very recently, much of the senior leadership of the party being led by Scots, there has always been a perception that the Scottish Parliament is a second tier for the party.
Getting the balance right between the two camps created a tension which was finally exposed in the 2011 Scottish Parliamentary Election. There was a presumption, given the excellent showing that the party had made the previous year at the General Election, that victory could be secured by running the campaign along the same lines.
Beyond sandwich shops, and policy announcements halfway through the election, this was the fatal flaw which resulted in Labour having one of its worst defeats in a century. The Scottish electorate has responded to devolution with increasingly sophisticated voting patterns. They understand the differences between Westminster and Holyrood elections, and allocate different priorities to each one.
Given that, over a decade since devolution, Labour are still trying to get to grips with this sea shift, provides some context to the news that Johann Lamont is beginning to assert her authority over the party in Scotland.
Previously the leader of the Labour MSPs was just that. They had little power outside of Edinburgh – just another cog in the party apparatus, on the same level as a group at Glasgow City Council. This system worked while leaders such as Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling were leading the party and had an ear to the ground, but with the UK Labour party now more London-centric, the need for reform has been exposed.
Following the 2011 election, a review of the party, led by Jim Murphy MP and Sarah Boyack MSP, recommended that the position of Scottish Labour Leader be created, local parties reorganised and that the headquarters be moved from the current location at John Smith House in Glasgow, to Edinburgh.
These measures, which are still in the midst of being implemented, are about shifting the power base of Labour away from the MPs and Glasgow City Council, and to the East, where the Scottish Parliament sits.
Last week it was revealed that Rami Okasha, the head of strategy, communications and policy for Labour in Scotland, is on leave while facing disciplinary proceedings for alleged “insubordination”, the details of which have not yet been made public. Following this the General Secretary for the party in Scotland, Colin Smyth, announced that he was resigning from his position. These moves are being seen as the first shots across the bow for Lamont, as she tries to reposition the party.
However, while internal reviews are needed for the party, Scottish Labour is continuing to face the same problems which plagued the Iain Gray leadership. What exactly does the party have to offer the electorate, and how does it get that message across effectively?
As Labour found out to their cost, it is not enough to announce policies a few weeks before, or during the election. They need to be given time to be embedded. At present Labour has positioned itself only as a monitor against the SNP. First Minister Questions is the centrepiece of the week, despite having a questionable impact on the overall electorate.
All the while the SNP has some simple messages which demonstrate competence in Government. The council tax has been frozen. Prescription charges are free. Students are not faced with paying fees. Against this effective messaging, Scottish Labour continues to flounder.
The party simply cannot attack the SNP for the next four years, and presume that things will turn around. Policy development needs to be underway now. The next two years are going to be dominated by the independence debate. There will then be less than two years before the next Scottish Parliament elections (irrespective of the result). Two years to turn the party around, and articulate an alternative vision for Scotland may not be enough.
There are signs the new leadership are aware of this. Johann Lamont has previously announced a review into extending powers for Holyrood. While this review has not yet taken place, and membership has yet to be established, it does demonstrate some understanding of the need to prepare the groundwork now, for the next election.
But they need to go further. If voters reject independence, one of the big issues of the 2016 election will be local government reform, particularly around council tax. The council tax freeze (which we should all remember, started life as a placeholder for reform) will be nearly a decade old. The SNP have previously declared in their manifesto that they would be looking at the issue during the lifetime of this Parliament, and present a new model ahead of the 2016 election. Labour could take this time, when the Scottish Government is focused on the referendum, to prepare to take the lead on the issue.
When the history books are written about the party in Scotland, the last few years will without a doubt be considered to be one of its darkest periods. But there are positives – both Westminster and local elections showed strong Labour support. This makes it clear the problem lies with the Holyrood party and its policies.
Critiquing the Scottish Government for cutting services, and demanding that they “do more” for people, did not work last time, and it will not work next time. Reform is long and hard and can create division, but it will also reap rewards in the future.