The Dunfermline victory can’t disguise Scottish Labour’s difficulties

Despite the party's by-election success, all the signs still point towards another SNP-controlled parliament in 2016.

Is the news from Dunfermline this morning another sign of Scottish Labour’s revival? Having managed to hold on to Glasgow city council last year despite a determined challenge from the SNP and, more recently, slash the nationalists’ majority in Aberdeen Donside, you could be forgiven for thinking things were starting to turn back in the party’s favour.

In reality, Cara Hilton’s victory – emphatic though it was – does nothing to change the current direction of Scottish politics. The SNP won the constituency in 2011 by just 590 votes and its MSP, Bill Walker, was (eventually) forced to resign the seat after being convicted of 23 counts of domestic abuse against three ex-wives and a step-daughter. Dunfermline is not, at any rate, natural SNP territory.

The more pressing question is why Labour has made so little progress over the last two years. Although the polls have narrowed in recent months, the SNP maintains a four to five point lead over Labour in terms of Holyrood voting intentions. Moreover, Salmond’s administration enjoys strong underlying approval ratings: 57 per cent of the Scottish electorate (together with 53 per cent of Labour voters) are satisfied with the performance of the Scottish government. These are impressive numbers for a party halfway through its second term in office. 

To some extent, Labour’s problem is presentational. It hasn’t yet persuaded Scots that it is an authentically Scottish party, run from Scotland, in Scotland’s interests. Nor can it offer a clearly defined policy platform. Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont has established a commission to review the party’s approach to universal benefits. While they wait for the commission’s report, however, her colleagues are tying themselves in knots trying to carve out coherent positions on concessionary travel, free prescriptions and university funding.

But Labour also faces a deeply-rooted, structural challenge. The party has lost support at every Holyrood election since the first in 1999. From a peak of nearly 910,000 constituency and 785,000 list votes under Donald Dewar, it slumped to a low of 630,000 constituency and 525,000 list votes in 2011 under Iain Gray.

Significantly, the largest fall in its vote share didn’t occur in 2007 or 2011, as a result of a surge in SNP popularity. It occurred in 2003, when large chunks of the left vote broke away to smaller, more radical parties such as the Scottish Socialists and the Greens. These voters haven’t returned to Labour and there is little sign that they intend to.

There has been a broader weakening of Labour’s base, too. At the 2011 elections, Labour trailed the nationalists by 14 per cent among Scots who identified themselves as working class and by 19 per cent among Scots who qualified as working class according to official criteria. The SNP was also the party of choice for public sector workers, trade unionists and even Catholics, all of whom Labour would once have considered part of its natural constituency.

Labour is entitled to celebrate the Dunfermline result. The party fought doggedly, against a typically well organised nationalist campaign, to take the seat. But it shouldn’t let this modest success disguise the scale of the task at hand. All the signs still point towards another SNP-controlled parliament in 2016. 

Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont. Photograph: Getty Images.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

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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