Decline and fall of Scottish Labour

Written by Jenni Davidson on 12 May 2016 in Inside Politics

Labour has a long road back from its present situation, but there is still room for a left-wing unionist party in Scotland


This election has been repeatedly cited as a historic one, as the SNP became the first party since the inauguration of the Scottish Parliament to win a third term and took the highest ever number of constituency votes. But it’s also been a historic election for Labour – for all the wrong reasons.

With 23 per cent, Labour got its lowest percentage of the vote in Scotland in a century, its vote share dropping by 9.2 per cent in the constituencies and 7.2 per cent in the regional lists compared with 2011, pushing the party into third place, a position it last occupied in Scotland in 1910.

The party lost a third of its seats, dropping from 37 to 24, with 12 of the 13 losses in the constituencies – previously Scottish Labour’s main focus.

Several Labour big guns such as Sarah Boyack, Ken Macintosh and former leader Johann Lamont lost their constituency seats, although the latter two were elected on party lists.

Without the regional lists, even the leader and deputy leader would not have been elected this time round.


Scottish Labour must get to grips with the constitutional question

The election shows Scottish politics is still in a state of flux

The Scottish Tories face a new challenge

So where did Labour go wrong? Labour leader Kezia Dugdale put it down to the independence question.

Speaking to the BBC after the election, she said: “What appears to have happened in Scotland is we’ve returned to those constitutional arguments of the past, the final days of the election campaign have focused very much on those issues of independence and remaining part of the United Kingdom.

“The Tories have benefited hugely from being the party to say very clearly and strongly they opposed a second referendum on independence. There’s lots of people in Scotland who were very fearful of that.

“The Scottish Labour Party had a clear commitment to oppose a second referendum as well, but we were also trying to make an argument about Scotland’s future, trying to bring together people who had voted both yes and no with a positive vision of the future of Scotland which was about using the new powers of this parliament […], powers that will allow us to make different choices about tax and welfare that will allow us to make different choices from Westminster.”

It’s clear the independence question was significant. Last year there was some suggestion that resentment of Labour standing side-by-side with the Tories against independence played a large part in the revolt that saw Labour lose all but one of its Westminster seats to the SNP, but this time round the figures seem to suggest that it was the Conservatives who gained from Labour’s losses.

The question remains as to whether Labour really has been clear in its opposition to a second referendum and succeeded in presenting a positive vision of the future.

Certainly the party has scored some own goals in this campaign. The announcement of its penny on income tax policy, with a £100 rebate for lower earners, backfired as it quickly became clear there was no detail around how the rebate would work, then an apparent about-turn on the rebate altogether just as the party was making gains against the SNP over that party’s dropping of the 50p tax rate.

There has also been a wavering on named person legislation and a lack of clarity on the question of a second independence referendum, with Kezia Dugdale indicating that she might support independence in the event of an EU exit and that she was open to party members being pro-independence.

In an opinion poll by Ipsos MORI shortly before the election, only 45 per cent agreed with the statement ‘I know what the party stands for’ compared to 37 per cent who disagreed, and just seven per cent of respondents said that Labour was the political party that was most clear and united about what its policies should be.

The same poll showed a net minus 11 satisfaction rating for Kezia Dugdale.

In-fighting, both in Scotland and at UK level, may have been an issue too, from the briefings against Jeremy Corbyn, to accusations of anti-Semitism from down south.

Scottish Labour faces hard questions about its campaign strategy and manifesto.

As the polls closed and it was becoming evident that the party had fared badly, discontent bubbled dramatically to the surface, with Thomas Docherty, Central Scotland list candidate, referring witheringly to the party’s manifesto as “self-immolation for dummies” in a television interview.

There is a long slog to regain ground from this present decline. The issue is not necessarily that Labour does not know what it stands for, but that it fails to convey it clearly and aspects of its once distinct identity have been subsumed by other parties in Scotland.

At every turn, there is another party in Scotland that stands for the same thing and is shouting louder and more clearly about what it wants in this new configured political landscape.

If you’re moderately left of centre, there’s the SNP; if you’re more left of centre, there’s the Greens or one of the socialist parties; and if the independence question’s your main concern, the Tories are far more ardently unionist.

What we don’t have at present is another left-wing unionist party. The question is, though, whether that is something Scotland wants.

Can Scottish Labour sell left-of-centre unionism or is the left-wing nationalist versus right-wing unionist dichotomy a fixture, with Labour left floundering in between? 



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