Where did it all go wrong for Labour in Scotland?

Labour’s attempt to turn the election into a referendum on the coalition was a disaster.

It was a terrible night for Labour in Scotland. The SNP has won a second straight victory and now looks like the natural party of devolved government. The proportional additional member system is designed to prevent any party from winning a majority (a safety valve against independence), but it looks like Alex Salmond could get one. The SNP is predicted to win 68 seats: an overall majority of three and the largest number of seats any party has ever won in the Scottish Parliament.

So, where did it all go wrong for Labour? As recently as March, the party was enjoying a double-digit lead in the polls. What's now clear is that its attempt to turn the election into a referendum on the Westminster coalition was a disastrous misjudgement. Ed Miliband urged the public to use the contest to give Labour "the best chance of stopping it [the coalition] going to the full term". But he badly misread the mood in Scotland after one term of SNP governance. The electorate chose to judge the contest on its own merits and concluded that Salmond would do a better job of standing up for Scottish interests than Iain Gray ("Gray by name, grey by nature"). The charismatic Salmond ran a textbook presidential campaign that give him the edge with swing voters.

The SNP's remarkable poll surge (up 12.3 per cent in the constituency section) is not the product of any increase in anti-Union sentiment. The most recent poll on the subject showed that just 33 per cent would vote in favour of independence, were a referendum to be held. It is precisely for this reason that so many chose to vote for Salmond's party. They were free to endorse his social-democratic policies (no tuition fees, no NHS prescription charges, free personal care for the elderly, free school meals for all five-to-eight-year-olds), safe in the knowledge that they retain a veto over independence. As Roy Hattersley (a Miliband ally) just admitted on the BBC, the SNP won because it offered something "genuinely radical". Salmond, a formidable politician, deftly positioned his party to the left of Labour and repelled the old gibe of "Tartan Tories".

In a leader published a week ago, we warned that failure in Scotland would be a big blow for Miliband's leadership. Labour has been denied what he rightly identified as a platform to set out a "real alternative" to the coalition government. This fact, combined with the inevitable rejection of AV, means that two significant opportunities to undermine the Tories have been missed.

Miliband has become associated with defeat dangerously early in his leadership. The prospect of an emboldened Tory party fighting the next election under first-past-the-post, having redrawn the constituency boundaries in its favour, is not a happy one for Labour.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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