Opportunity to finally drag a reluctant party into the real world

It says all you need to know about the desperate plight of Scottish Labour that the modest proposals for reform presented yesterday by Jim Murphy were, even for a second, the subject of controversy. 

That there isn’t already a unanimous view that the absurd, outdated and undemocratic electoral college used (too often) for electing its leader should be consigned to history is a pretty damning indictment of a once invincible party.

And, at the risk of besmirching the undoubtedly fine qualities of some of Labour’s MSPs, the list candidates for next May’s elections were always going to be revisited, surely? The “accidental MSPs” who found themselves in Holyrood in May 2011 were almost as surprised at what had happened to them as were the voters. That alone should have set alarm bells ringing in party HQ long before now. 

And it’s this crucial issue that, almost more than any other, explains Scottish Labour’s demise. Four years ago, our leaders were comfortably certain that after four years of SNP government, those silly voters would have learned their lesson and would, inevitably, return to the Labour fold. The party would (reluctantly) forgive them their careless fling with the SNP and we would say no more about it.

In the meantime, since the party was going to do so well in the constituency vote, who cared whose names filled the blank spaces on the regional list ballot papers? Who did you say wants to be on the list? Never heard of them… yeah, sure, whatever.

And then polling day happened and the electorate’s flirtation with the SNP started to look less like a one-night stand and more like a couple looking at venues for the reception…

And suddenly there was a realisation in the party that maybe they should have read those list candidates’ CVs a bit more carefully. And then the next four years happened and here we are. 

Parties win – or at least recover – when they are determined to leave their comfort zone, when they challenge themselves, when they start to do things radically different from The Way It’s Always Been Done. 

Jim Murphy’s reforms didn’t exactly represent Scottish Labour’s Clause IV moment; his suggested changes won’t grab anyone’s attention beyond the small and exclusive clique of party activists and a few dedicated reporters. But they do threaten, at long last, the complacency of the party establishment and its power brokers by suggesting – horrors! – that maybe we should try to be a bit democratic and ever so slightly professional. 

And therein lies one of the biggest traps awaiting Scottish Labour: yesterday marked the triumph of Jim Murphy and the modernisers in bringing forward “radical” reforms that voters surely recognise have been standard practice in every other party for years. 

Still, better to arrive in the future later than everyone else than not to arrive at all. 

This article was originally published in Scotland on Sunday on 14 June 2015

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