Why Labour slumped in Scotland

Submitted by martin on 16 December, 2019 - 8:38 Author: Anne Field
scottish labour

In the 2019 general election the SNP won more seats, more votes, and a higher share of the vote on a higher turnout than it did in 2017.

The number of SNP MPs increased from 35 to 48. It picked up a million and a quarter votes (as against a million in 2017), representing 45% of the popular vote (37% in 2017). And whereas voter turnout in the rest of the country fell, in Scotland it increased by 1.5%.

With only one exception, seats held by the SNP in 2017 with majorities of just a couple of hundred saw SNP MPs returned in 2019 with majorities of between 5,000 and 6,000.

Seats won by the SNP included that of (former) Lib-Dem leader Jo Swinson, and Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath. The SNP candidate in that constituency had been disowned by the party for posting antisemitic material on social media.

(Strictly speaking, it was a win for an independent rather than the SNP.)

Compared with 2017 the Tories lost seven of their 13 MPs, 65,000 votes and 3.5% of the popular vote (down from 28.5% to 25%).

The Lib-Dems increased their share of the vote by nearly 3% but ended up with the same number of seats (four). Jo Swinson lost. But the Lib-Dems won North East Fife – won by the SNP in 2017 by just two votes – due to tactical voting by Tory and Labour voters.

Scottish Labour went into the general election with seven MPs and came out with just one. It lost over 200,000 votes. Its share of the popular vote fell from 27% in 2017 to 18.5%.

But Scottish Labour’s performance was probably worse than the headline figure. In a number of Labour-target SNP-marginals there was clearly an element of anti-SNP tactical voting by Tory voters, even though it was not enough to determine the results.

Apart from a few vocal Leavers who wanted to ‘get Brexit done’, Brexit was not an issue on the doorstep. In some constituencies Tory election material did not even mention Brexit: In the 2016 referendum there had been a 62% vote in Scotland in favour of Remain.

Unlike national Labour policy, Scottish Labour policy on Brexit is straightforward support for a second referendum and Remain. But this policy was promoted to different degrees by different candidates during the campaign. In the event, it made no difference to the outcome.

Corbyn was an issue on the doorstep, but arguably not to the extent claimed by the Scottish Labour right wing.

Voters vocally hostile to Corbyn often turned out never to have voted for Labour anyway. They used ‘Corbyn’ as a one-word explanation to cover a variety of conflicting reasons why they were not Labour voters.

And more often than not the ‘Corbyn’ criticised on the doorstep was often not the real one but the caricature of Corbyn to be found in the pages of the Daily Mail and the Sun.

Right-wing Labour canvassers, of course, did nothing to challenge such misperceptions. In fact, their record in recent years had been one of helping to promote them.

One section of the electorate was generally positive towards Corbyn: SNP voters. If they were in England, ran their argument, they would vote Labour as Corbyn stood for what Labour used to stand for. But as they were in Scotland, they would be voting SNP.

While Brexit was not an issue, Scottish independence certainly was. In fact, as the election campaign progressed, it became an increasingly dominant issue on the doorstep and the election itself began to take on the characteristics of a quasi-referendum.

This was a boost for the SNP. Despite the cautious approach of SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon to a second referendum, the linkage between a vote for the SNP and a second referendum reinvigorated a layer of the Yes voters lost by the SNP in 2017.

For the Tories the tactic of highlighting the prospect of a second referendum in the event of an SNP victory in Scotland brought no gains at all.

Scottish Labour policy – no support for a second referendum unless the SNP won a mandate for it in the 2021 Holyrood elections – made sense. But it failed to attract SNP voters (it was coupled with opposition to independence itself) and, except in SNP-marginals, Tory voters (as it accepted the possibility of a second referendum).

The Scottish Labour right wing has been quick to pin the blame for Scottish Labour’s defeat on Corbyn and the pro-Corbyn leadership of the Labour Party. The calibre – and hypocrisy – of such attacks is best summed by up former Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy:

“The UK party is led by a group of out-of-touch London public schoolboys that has such a peculiar, eccentric and romanticised view of working-class voters. The Labour Party took them for granted and we presented them with a programme that they were unwilling to vote for.”

“If all the Labour Party does is elect a new leader, then it’s not having the reckoning that it should have after its previous three spectacular defeats.”

Murphy was an eternal student, an NUS apparatchik, and a Scottish Labour Students apparatchik. He ‘graduated’ into being a career politician with no experience of real-life work.

After having been the public face of the Labour-Tory collaborationist Better Together campaign during the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, Murphy was the leader of Scottish Labour in the following year’s general election, when Labour lost 40 of its 41 MPs.

During his brief tenure as Scottish Labour leader Murphy’s Chief of Staff was John McTernan, who believed that Thatcher’s greatest achievement was to defeat the miners and advocated that a Labour government should do the same to railworkers.

Murphy’s idea of policies which would appeal to working-class voters was exemplified by his unilateral declaration that Labour would end the ban on the sale of alcohol at football matches – despite the universal recognition that this would lead to an increase in domestic violence.

And Murphy cannot count.

In recent years Scottish Labour has suffered six major election defeats (three general elections, plus Holyrood, European and local authority elections). The first of those, which paved the way for the following ones, was the 2015 general election, when Murphy was Scottish Labour leader.

Scottish Labour has not moved on from the collapse of 2015. It had one MP in 2015, and now has just one MP again. By contrast, the SNP has built a solid electoral bloc and – apart from a blip in 2017 – has consolidated its support in all elections held since then.

Not that long ago Scottish Labour was the dominant political force in Scotland, with 50 or more Westminster MPs, control of most of the major local authorities, and control of the Holyrood parliament in coalition with the Lib-Dems.

But that political domination was more apparent than real, propped up in large part by a first-past-the-post voting system. And the apparent domination masked a hollowing out of Scottish Labour at grassroots level.

Active, functioning, campaigning Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) which might demand accountability of Labour MPs and MSPs were a threat to careerists. The latter therefore ensured that CLPs remained as moribund as possible.

Hence the ease with which the SNP swept aside Scottish Labour in 2015, riding the wave of populist fervour unleashed by the preceding year’s referendum. The edifice of Scottish Labour collapsed almost overnight because its foundations had already rotted away.

Corbyn’s election as party leader brought few new members into Scottish Labour. And the mainstream organised left – the Campaign for Socialism (CfS), which has the Scottish ‘franchise’ for Momentum – failed to organise them into a force capable of challenging the Labour right.

In fact, the CfS transformed itself into a largely ineffective party-internal electoral machine which shut down the political debate and education needed to build an effective socialist current within Scottish Labour.

The poisonous influence of Morning Star pro-Brexit and don’t-criticise-the-union-bureaucracy ‘socialism’ made the CfS even less fit-for-purpose (except insofar as its purpose was to provide a stepping stone into paid employment in the Labour and trade union bureaucracy).

The Stalinist current in the Scottish Labour left will create a narrative which blames Labour’s defeat on its failure to support Brexit. Given that Scotland voted two-to-one to remain in the EU in 2016, this narrative is even less credible in Scotland than elsewhere.

Another current in the Scottish Labour left will embrace – or simply return to – a pseudo-left Scottish populism.

These people were pro-independence in 2014 when that was the radical chic. They became pro-Corbyn in 2015 when that was the new fashion. Now they have decided Scottish self-determination in the new must-have.

The SNP’s victory in the general election can justifiably be taken as a mandate for a second referendum on Scottish independence (and/or transferring the power to call a referendum from Westminster to Holyrood). Scottish Labour should recognise that.

But that is far removed from the politics of the Scottish Labour for Radical Democracy Open Letter now in circulation, which effectively calls on the ruling class in Scotland to implement the 2019 Labour Party Manifesto:

“The policies put forward in Labour’s 2019 manifesto offer a valuable starting point. … We demand that the Scottish political establishment begins to think and act ‘as if’ it has the requisite independence to radically address the overlapping crises facing working-class communities in Scotland.”

The only consistency of these people over the years, apart from their pseudo-intellectual arrogance, has been a complete failure to understand class politics and what the labour movement is all about.

Stalinism and Scottish populism are both dead-ends for the Scottish workers’ movement. There is no short cut to rebuilding Scottish Labour – and the broader trade union movement – in Scotland.

More detailed discussion about how the Scottish left should respond to Labour’s defeat in future issues of Solidarity. Contributions from readers, especially in Scotland, are welcome.

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