Scottish Labour, the Euro-elections and long-term decline

Submitted by cathy n on 30 May, 2019 - 9:19 Author: Ann Field
Scottish Labour

In Scotland Labour’s share of the vote in last Thursday’s EU election slumped to just over 9%, costing it both its sitting MEPs. It came fifth overall, just one percentage point ahead of the Greens. In 2014 Scottish Labour had won 26% of the vote.

In some local authority areas Labour did far worse. In Edinburgh Scottish Labour came sixth, with 7% of the vote. In the Scottish Borders it also came sixth, with less than 3% of the vote and less than one percentage point ahead of Change UK.

Even in Glasgow, where Labour managed to come second with 15% of the vote, its share of votes fell by over half compared with 2014, with the Scottish Greens only three percentage points behind.

Clear winners were the SNP. They secured the biggest share of the vote in 30 out of 32 local authority areas, they won nearly 38% of votes overall, and increased their tally of MEPs from two to three.

Scotland’s three other MEPs are: Brexit Party (15% of the vote); Lib-Dem (14% of the vote); and Tory (11.5% of the vote).

Having promised that a vote for the SNP in the EU election would not be a vote for a second referendum on Scottish independence, Sturgeon has now announced that the SNP’s electoral success last Thursday is a mandate for a second referendum, probably in late 2020.

Apart from pointing to the SNP’s success, pro-independence campaigners have also – inevitably – pointed to the contrasting electoral outcomes in Scotland and England, where the Brexit Party came top in every region apart from London.

Scottish Labour’s EU election campaign, such as it was, mentioned the EU only in passing. Its main election leaflet briefly promised opposition to a no-deal Brexit, a “credible plan for a close relationship with the EU”, and “the option of a public vote” if there were no general election or agreement with the Tories.

The rest of the leaflet was taken up with policies for implementation by the Scottish Parliament, ranging from free bus travel for all under-25s to more investment in Scotland’s public services (illustrated by a photo of a police officer).

At an election rally held on the Monday before the election Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard called on voters to move on from the divisions of 2014 (Scottish referendum) and 2016 (EU referendum) and unite behind Labour policies, which would benefit the many not the few.

However praiseworthy such an aspiration might be, it had no purchase on reality. And Scottish Labour suffered the inevitable electoral consequences.

To be fully understood, last Thursday’s electoral debacle needs to be placed in a slightly longer-term historical context.

In the closing years of the twentieth century and the opening years of this century Labour was a hegemonic political force in Scotland, although the first-past-the-post system of voting used in all elections made it appear far more dominant than it was.

But this (illusory) hegemony contained the seeds of its own demise.

The Scottish Labour ‘establishment’ farmed out positions among themselves, relying on the core Labour vote to ensure their election. CLPs began to whither on the vine. Their only role was to deliver some leaflets at election time, if even that.

Then proportional representation was introduced for council elections and the newly created Scottish Parliament. Labour’s share of the vote went into a steady and linear decline. It lost control of one council after another. By 2007 it was no longer in power in Holyrood either.

But the Labour ‘establishment’ dreamt on that this was no more than a temporary blip and that Scotland would soon revert to its natural role as a Labour fiefdom. Instead, the opposite happened.

In 2014 the Labour ‘establishment’ led the Party into an alliance with the Tories in the anti-independence ‘Better Together’ campaign. The backlash against this class collaboration saw Labour lose 40 of its 41 MPs in 2015, and then come a poor third to the Tories in the 2016 Holyrood elections.

There was no Corbyn surge in Scotland, neither in terms of members nor in terms of votes. 2015 and 2016 saw no more than a trickle of new members into Scottish Labour. In the 2017 general election the Scottish Labour vote increased by a paltry 9,000 in Scotland as a whole.

Understandably but wrongly, many of the new members who did join Scottish Labour shied away from attending moribund and frequently deliberately unwelcoming CLP meetings. In CLPs throughout Scotland the ongoing grip of the dead hand of the right wing continued to stifle all possibility of a Labour revival.

Richard Leonard’s election as Scottish Labour leader in 2017 opened up the possibility of rebuilding the party. That would have required a full-on confrontation with the right at all levels of Scottish Labour. But the confrontation never came.

Instead, the right undermined his leadership at every opportunity. At the same time the residual strength of the right in local CLPs allowed them to win most of the nominations in the Westminster selection contests conducted in 2017.

Their candidates represented the politics which had driven voters away from Scottish Labour in the first place – career politicians who preferred the collaboration of ‘Better Together’ to labour movement class politics – and continued to repel them.

The mainstream left in Scottish Labour, on the other hand, lived off the illusion that with Corbyn elected as leader at national level and Leonard elected as leader at Scottish level, it was a case of ‘job done’.

As Labour coasted towards inevitable victory in Holyrood and Westminster elections, the key task was not to rock the boat. Political debate and argument was not just a luxury which could not be afforded but a positive liability. This applied, above all, to the issue of Brexit.

The right wing showed no such restraint. Only a fortnight before the EU elections right-wing Labour MP Ian Murray’s description of Scottish Labour as being “full of thugs and incompetents” was given front-page coverage in the Sunday press.

(In one sense, Murray was correct. The absence of a Corbyn influx meant that Scottish Labour still is full of the old right-wing thugs and incompetents.)

Wilfully lacking any political clarity on Brexit, still moribund at a local level, and with a ‘public face’ of Westminster candidates whose politics had been decisively rejected in 2015 and 2016, Scottish Labour’s poor showing in the EU election was effectively preordained.

Inevitably, the collapse in Scottish Labour’s vote in last week’s election has been seized on by the right. Much of the left, on the other hand, dismisses the result as a blip and as a diversion from ‘real’ politics (which seems to consist largely of promising free bus travel for all under-25s).

This places the mainstream Scottish Labour left where the right was a decade ago: Hostile to political argument and consoling itself with the fantasy that the collapse in Labour’s electoral support is no more than a temporary aberration.

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