Labour Party Conference: We will learn from SNP and reach out to the disenfranchised, says Douglas Alexander

Senior MPs highlight the need to win back voters who have lost faith in politics

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Voters feel that politicians are “over-privileged and under-powered,” Labour’s shadow Foreign Secretary admitted on Monday night, as he promised to learn lessons from the bruising Scottish referendum vote.

Douglas Alexander told an Independent fringe meeting at the Labour party conference that a failure to modernise its thinking in Scotland had made it vulnerable to promises made by a “more nimble party (the SNP) in the hands of Alex Salmond”. He said the party would take criticisms on board as the party approaches the next General Election.

But Mr Alexander, who is also Labour’s election co-ordinator, said the unity and passion showed by key figures in the final days of the campaign should be a model for how to convince voters in the rest of the country that the party was on their side.

“Voters feel that politicians are over-privileged and under-powered,” he said.

“They feel that there are forces that are out of the reach of even the UK parliament. They feel that politics is not serving their purpose or working for them.”

But he added: “In the Scottish referendum we exploded two imprisoning ideas – that all politicians are the same, because in Scotland that was transparently untrue, and the idea that voting does not make any difference.

“But (despite this) a growing proportion of the population do not see political parties as a vehicle for their ideas. In Scotland the campaign was not asking people to place their hopes in a party but a national identity.

“In the next election we will have to overcome voter scepticism about political parties and show that we can be a vehicle for change.”

“We are going to have to do that conversation by conversation... if we are going to get voters to trust us.”

Mr Alexander revealed that Ed Miliband would play a less prominent role in the next election than previous Labour leaders had in the pas,t suggesting the party need to operate as an orchestra – of both senior party leaders and local members talking to people in their communities.

“We don’t have talent to waste,” he said. “We need to do a much better job as politicians in going where the voters are. We need to be an orchestra and employ all the instruments of that orchestra.”

Mr Alexander said he had been behind Gordon Brown’s last-minute intervention in the referendum battle with a rabble rousing speech that was widely praised as one of the most powerful of his career.

He added that the inspiration had come from the referendum campaign in Quebec, where the then Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien – who was from the region – made a similar emotional appeal.

“In Scotland Gordon had a sense of being among his own people, being on his home turf and speaking about something he cared deeply about.”

“All of us – Gordon, myself, and others – were deeply emotionally invested in this campaign. I will go to my grave opposing the politics of grievance and division.”

Earlier Margaret Curran, the shadow Scottish Secretary, warned the party against complacency over the referendum victory.

“We have to be honest when we look at the results and see that some of the people who think Britain can’t work for them are Labour voters,” she told the conference.

She blamed their support for independence on fear of Tory governments, concerns over the future of public services and falling living standards.

“We need to understand why they are angry and what we need to do about it. We need to understand why, in areas like Glasgow, Lanarkshire and Dundee, people feel so let down.”

Ms Curran said the party needed to regain the trust of disillusioned former supporters by campaigning in streets, shops, workplaces, pubs and hairdressers.

She said she would travel to the ten constituencies with the highest Yes votes to meet Labour supporters who had voted for independence.