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by James Mitchell
10 June 2022
Comment: Labour is looking less like the loser

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar

Comment: Labour is looking less like the loser

Must Labour Lose? was the title of a classic analysis following the third successive Tory victory in 1959.  But Labour won the next election in 1964 and a landslide in 1966.  Labour was then described as the natural party of government.  It lost the next election in 1970.

But some variant of the question on 'must Labour lose?' recurs every generation or so and it tends to be followed by a Labour revival and then claims that Labour is invincible.

In 1992, Joe Rogaly of the Financial Times asked whether British politics was “turning Japanese” – an allusion to the dominance of the Liberal Democratic Party that had ruled Japan continuously for 38 years – after the fourth Tory victory in a row.  Labour won the next election by a landslide.  The 21st century, we were told, would be Labour’s century.

Scottish Labour kept winning throughout this waxing and waning of support in England.  That changed in 2007 when the SNP pipped Labour by one seat to become Scotland’s largest party, though that was not how it was seen at the time.  There were murmurings that the SNP would be out of office by Christmas. Opponents predicted that an SNP government obsessed with independence would endlessly seek confrontation with London and prove utterly incompetent. Politics is an expectations game and these predictions helped the SNP.  

The 2007 election proved more momentous than then appreciated. After all, such a slim grasp on power left many thinking it could easily be pulled away. But between 2007 and 2011, the SNP proved moderate, constructive and reasonably effective (nothing to frighten the horses but nothing to get very excited about), giving the party a base to win an overall majority in 2011 which in turn provided the mandate for an independence referendum. Few anticipated the dramatic increase in support for independence or that the SNP would become Scotland’s dominant party in its wake. Once more, the SNP was underestimated.

Nicola Sturgeon inherited an inter-connected triple lock on SNP electoral dominance: a reputation for competence; the Tories in power in London and Scotland’s second party; and a strong base of support for independence. The SNP’s electoral triple lock is not broken but it is now under strain.

Only the most inveterate SNP supporter would see the Sturgeon government as the epitome of governing competence, especially measured against expectations created by the First Minister’s promises.

But the SNP is reasonably secure so long as the Tories remain in office in London and are Scotland’s second party – the SNP’s dream scenario.  Former Labour voters who shifted en masse to the SNP via the independence referendum were unlikely to transfer allegiance to the Tories.  The SNP and Tories are in a symbiotic relationship, each depends on the other while simultaneously hostile.  This explains why the SNP’s spin machine goes into gleeful overdrive when polls record Tory leads across Britain. SNP spinners now seek to convince us that Labour’s consistent lead in the polls is not good enough, ignoring the obvious point that the same could be said about support for independence that remains stubbornly under 50 per cent, despite Brexit and Boris Johnston.

Labour’s position as Scotland’s second party in recent local elections is potentially important but Labour needs to consolidate this position to become a serious threat to the SNP.  Labour has so far been unsuccessful in shifting the agenda from the constitution and needs to address two major challenges.  It needs a credible programme for government. Far too little attention has been paid to Scotland’s economy since 2014 and the new fiscal arrangements mean public spending depends on Scottish economic performance as never before. Scotland has gained more autonomy but this has come at a cost – higher taxes accompany less money for public services due to the relative weakness of the Scottish economy.  Scotland faces mounting social and economic challenges but we have been drifting, leavened with promises, pronouncements and ‘strategy’ documents. Lists of good intentions are no substitute for serious policy development. Labour needs to fill this void with substantial proposals.

Secondly, Labour needs an alternative to both independence and Tory unionism. Labour cannot afford to be portrayed as close to the Tories.  Former Scottish Labour deputy leader Alex Rowley has recently encouraged his party to establish an independent commission to consult on change, similar to that operating in Wales.  This is refreshing and offers a potential way out of the current binary bind. The Rowley proposal would allow Scottish Labour to propose a homegrown alternative that could complement work done in Wales and by Gordon Brown’s commission.  Labour has made it to the foothills of victory and the summit can just about be seen. Such a constitutional offering needs to be firmly rooted in what Scotland needs to address social and economic challenges and not simply competence accumulation as an end in itself. What is missing from debate today is a party linking public policy needs and constitutional reform. Bold leadership, serious policy development and an alternative constitutional proposal are now required.

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