Scottish Labour: still failing

Author: 

Ann Field

Compared with the 2015 general election, Labour’s share of the vote at a UK level increased by 10%, from 30% to 40%, in the general election on 8th June. But in Scotland it increased by just 3%, from 24% to 27%.

In Scotland as whole the Labour vote increased by just under 10,000. Take away the increase of 7,000 votes in just one constituency (Edinburgh South, the one Scottish constituency held by Labour in 2015), the picture is even bleaker: an increase of only 3,000 votes.

By contrast, there were individual constituencies in England where the increase in the Labour vote was far greater than Labour’s increase in all of Scotland. In Central Ealing and Acton, for example, the Labour majority increased from 274 to nearly 14,000.

Despite the increase in the number of Scottish Labour MPs from one to seven, Labour’s vote in Scotland was effectively stagnant. The fact that the SNP haemorrhaged 470,000 votes (i.e. nearly half a million votes were ‘up for grabs’) makes this an even more dismal performance.

So too does the fact that the biggest winners in Scotland on June 8th were the Tories. Their popular vote increased by over 300,000, they gained 12 new MPs, and they took out SNP leading lights such as Alex Salmond and Angus Robertson.

A lot of 2015-SNP-voters simply stayed at home. In all but three constituencies turnout was lower in 2017 than in 2015. Overall, turnout fell from 71% to 66%. In some constituencies the turnout was less than 55%.

The Tory election campaign at a national level staggered from one mishap to another. In Scotland the SNP election campaign was a shambles. In England and Wales the Labour campaign went from strength to strength.

So why did Scottish Labour, in real terms and in that uniquely favourable context, do so badly?

Scottish Labour has yet to free itself from the stigma of the ‘Better Together’ campaign, when Scottish Labour and the Tories combined in a joint campaign for a ‘No’ vote in the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence.

In the 2015 general election the SNP used the ‘Red Tories’ label with deadly effect. Since then, the label has lost a lot of its emotional clout. And the election of Corbyn as Labour Party leader makes it really quite surreal.

But the legacy of ‘Better Together’ remains an obstacle, even if a less serious one than in the past, to winning voters back to Labour.

The same applies to the legacy of the ‘interregnum’ of Jim Murphy, the public face of ‘Better Together’, as Scottish Labour leader between December 2014 and May of 2015.

His election as leader was an endorsement of the Labour-Tory collaboration in ‘Better Together’. The message his election sent to voters was: We really don’t care what you think. Scottish Labour quickly paid the price. It had had 41 MPs in December 2014. By 8th May the following year it had just one.

Again, the damage to Scottish Labour caused by Murphy has faded over time. But, along with the role he played in helping to virtually wipe out Scottish Labour representation in Westminster, he remains part of the legacy which Scottish Labour has yet to overcome.

In the 2017 general election itself the Scottish Labour leadership simply ran the wrong campaign. And that, more than the historical legacies of ‘Better Together’ and Murphy, was the prime reason for Scottish Labour’s poor performance.

The dual focus of the campaign was ‘Only Labour can beat the SNP’ and ‘Scottish Labour opposes a second referendum’.

The first was not true. This was clear from the results of the council election held on 4th May. They had revealed the extent of the upsurge in support for the Tories.

The second lacked clout. For any voter primarily concerned about defence of the Union, the Tories were clearly far more hostile to another referendum and more aggressive in their opposition to one.

More fundamentally, both lacked a political cutting edge.

The first portrayed the SNP and, by extension, SNP voters as the enemy to be beaten. In practice, it was an appeal to Tory and Lib-Dem voters to switch to Labour. It made no sense as an appeal to SNP voters: SNP voters – vote Labour to beat the SNP!

The second shifted attention away from the social and economic issues and corresponding Labour Party manifesto commitments which could have won over ‘soft’ SNP voters. Instead of pushing the issue of another referendum into the background, it made it centre-stage.

(In the context of Scottish politics, it was certainly a matter of necessity for the Scottish Labour leadership to make clear its opposition to another referendum. The problem was the centrality given to that in the election campaign.)

What the Scottish Labour election campaign lacked, in contrast to the Labour campaign in England and Wales, was the ‘Corbyn factor’ and the ‘Corbyn bounce’.

Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale opposed Corbyn in the 2015 leadership contest and publicly supported Owen Smith in the 2016 leadership context.

A win for Corbyn, she claimed in 2015, would reduce Labour to “carping from the sidelines”. In 2016 she claimed that Corbyn “speaks only to the converted.” Corbyn could not “unite our party and lead us into government.” He could not “appeal to a broad enough section of voters to win an election.”

During the election campaign Dugdale avoided sharing a platform with Corbyn. She did not turn up to a thousand-strong rally with Corbyn in Glasgow a fortnight before the election, nor to a second rally in Glasgow on the eve of the election.

Scottish Labour’s election campaign was consistent with that anti-Corbynism. The campaign was negative in its emphasis on opposition to a second referendum and Scottish independence. What it should have said, but was inherently incapable of, was:

‘We have something on offer far better than a second referendum and independence. We have a Corbyn Labour government on offer, committed to making a start on challenging the social and economic inequalities generated by Tory rule and left untouched by SNP rule.’

The Scottish Labour leadership had just three target seats in the general election. Its campaign themes of ‘only we can beat the SNP’ and ‘no to a second referendum’ were geared to those three seats – not the other 56.

Labour held on to Edinburgh South, which was never really in doubt. It managed to win East Lothian. But it came a poor third in East Renfrewshire, where its candidate was the former director of ‘Better Together’ – a walking reminder of the reasons why Scottish Labour had lost 40 seats in 2015.

The official Scottish Labour campaign played out equally badly in other constituencies. In Glasgow Shettleston, for example, the SNP vote collapsed by 10,000 in comparison to 2015. But the Labour vote increased by just 220.

This was not surprising. The Labour candidate was a former employee of ‘Better Together’ and outspoken in her opposition to Corbyn: “I’m a Labour member and feel betrayed by @jeremycorbyn destroying the Party I love. Please do honourable thing and resign.”

She had also signed the statement of June 2016 “Scottish Labour Members Call for Corbyn to Go”: “Jeremy Corbyn wants to captain a ship for which he has no crew. For the good of the party and, more importantly, the country, he must step aside.”

A pro-Corbyn candidate would have won over more than enough SNP voters to make Shettleston a Labour win. Instead, the candidate selected by the Scottish Labour Executive Committee lost by 75 votes.

The fact that Scottish Labour ended up winning seven constituencies on 8th June, more than double the number of its target seats, further underlines the abysmal underestimation by the Scottish Labour leadership of the need to put Corbyn to the fore in its election campaigning.

There needs to be a proper membership-wide post mortem on Scottish Labour’s poor performance in the general election. And those responsible for it must be called to account.