I REMEMBER the first time I voted Labour. It took me a while. I was 45 years old. It was the 2015 General Election. Labour’s most disastrous result in Scotland ever. I couldn’t have chosen a worse time to do it. I decided to vote for the party just as everyone else in Scotland decided not to.

If I remember rightly, there were several motivating issues for me at the time. First, the wounds from the independence referendum were pretty raw in 2015 (they still are), so one of the factors was emotional. I saw the Labour leader at the time, Ed Miliband, being screamed at by angry Yes campaigners in Edinburgh. It was ugly, and I didn’t want to be on the side of the aggressors.

The second factor was tactical. In 2015, the battle in Scotland seemed to be between Labour and the SNP and it was obvious the SNP would be using any rise in their vote as an argument for another referendum (they still are), so the best option for unionists was to vote for the party that was most likely to defeat the SNP. In my case, that was Labour, or so I thought.

And the third factor was Ed Miliband himself. I met him when he was up in Scotland and liked him. He was a little awkward and geeky yes, but he did realise that the sweet spot in politics is the centre ground even though lots of people were saying Labour needed to be more left-wing (they still are, even after Corbyn).

Five years on – and several disastrous elections later – it would appear Labour has now realised its mistake in moving away from the Miliband model; indeed, Ed Miliband stood in for new leader Keir Starmer in the Commons. In his “conference” speech, delivered to an empty room, Starmer also made it clear what the plan now is: Labour is back to the four strategies it needs to win. The four Cs: centrism, conscience, calmness, and competence.

On the first – centrism – there wasn’t actually a lot of policy in Starmer’s speech, but it was notable that he talked just as much about national security and wealth as he did about public services and funding the NHS. You can feel him looking for that centre point that Tony Blair found 25 years ago.

The second factor – conscience – was also clear: Starmer talked about the instincts and beliefs that inspired him to become a prosecuting lawyer “fighting for justice”. There was also a nice anecdote about what it felt like to be the only boy in a small town in Surrey called “Keir” and how he became the fourth member of the East Surrey Young Socialists. It was a nicely judged glimpse into who he was and who he is.

But it’s the third and fourth factors – calmness and competence – that are going to be most important. Calmness may not seem like an obvious winning strategy, but a lot of voters have had their fill of “passion”, whether it’s passion for Brexit or passion for independence. The trick for Starmer will be look like the calm voice in between the bared teeth and clenched fists of the Brexiters on the one hand and the Scottish nationalists on the other. It may not be enough, who knows, but in a way he has no choice: he cannot out-national the nationalists.

Which leaves the fourth factor and the one Starmer leaned on most heavily in his speech: competence. The Tories’ incompetence, he said, was holding Britain back; he also said, bluntly, that Boris Johnson wasn’t up to the job of PM, and this, I think, will be the key to Starmer’s success or failure. The other three factors matter, but after years of incompetence, all we really want is someone who’s good, and able, and – not a sexy word but it matters – sensible.

Which leaves many voters who are in the centre ground, particularly in Scotland, with very few options. They’re tired of the incompetence of the Tories, which destroyed the settled will on the constitution. But they’re tired too of the rage of the Scottish nationalists, which seeks to destroy the constitution all together. So what options are left?

Keir Starmer summed up the situation well in his speech. His mission, he said, was to stop the nationalists ripping the country apart by design and stop the Tories dismantling it by neglect. Spot on. But the question is whether he has the right strategy to do it. All he can do is take the centre, calmly and competently, and perhaps voters like me will do what Starmer wants us to do: look at Labour again. In the current situation, we probably don’t have much choice.

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