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.

Photo: Getty
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Ken Livingstone says publicly what many are saying privately: tomorrow belongs to John McDonnell

The Shadow Chancellor has emerged as a frontrunner should another Labour leadership election happen. 

“It would be John.” Ken Livingstone, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal allies in the media, has said publicly what many are saying privately: if something does happen to Corbyn, or should he choose to step down, place your bets on John McDonnell. Livingstone, speaking to Russia Today, said that if Corbyn were "pushed under a bus", John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, would be the preferred candidate to replace him.

Even among the Labour leader’s allies, speculation is rife as to if the Islington North MP will lead the party into the 2020 election. Corbyn would be 71 in 2020 – the oldest candidate for Prime Minister since Clement Attlee lost the 1955 election aged 72.

While Corbyn is said to be enjoying the role at present, he still resents the intrusion of much of the press and dislikes many of the duties of the party leader. McDonnell, however, has impressed even some critics with his increasingly polished TV performances and has wowed a few sceptical donors. One big donor, who was thinking of pulling their money, confided that a one-on-one chat with the shadow chancellor had left them feeling much happier than a similar chat with Ed Miliband.

The issue of the succession is widely discussed on the left. For many, having waited decades to achieve a position of power, pinning their hopes on the health of one man would be unforgivably foolish. One historically-minded trade union official points out that Hugh Gaitskell, at 56, and John Smith, at 55, were 10 and 11 years younger than Corbyn when they died. In 1994, the right was ready and had two natural successors in the shape of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in place. In 1963, the right was unprepared and lost the leadership to Harold Wilson, from the party's centre. "If something happens, or he just decides to call it a day, [we have to make sure] it will be '94 not '63," they observed.

While McDonnell is just two years younger than Corbyn, his closest ally in politics and a close personal friend, he is seen by some as considerably more vigorous. His increasingly frequent outings on television have seen him emerge as one of the most adept media performers from the Labour left, and he has won internal plaudits for his recent tussles with George Osborne over the tax bill.

The left’s hopes of securing a non-Corbyn candidate on the ballot have been boosted in recent weeks. The parliamentary Labour party’s successful attempt to boot Steve Rotheram off the party’s ruling NEC, while superficially a victory for the party’s Corbynsceptics, revealed that the numbers are still there for a candidate of the left to make the ballot. 30 MPs voted to keep Rotheram in place, with many MPs from the left of the party, including McDonnell, Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John Trickett, abstaining.

The ballot threshold has risen due to a little-noticed rule change, agreed over the summer, to give members of the European Parliament equal rights with members of the Westminster Parliament. However, Labour’s MEPs are more leftwing, on the whole, than the party in Westminster . In addition, party members vote on the order that Labour MEPs appear on the party list, increasing (or decreasing) their chances of being re-elected, making them more likely to be susceptible to an organised campaign to secure a place for a leftwinger on the ballot.

That makes it – in the views of many key players – incredibly likely that the necessary 51 nominations to secure a place on the ballot are well within reach for the left, particularly if by-election selections in Ogmore, where the sitting MP, is standing down to run for the Welsh Assembly, and Sheffield Brightside, where Harry Harpham has died, return candidates from the party’s left.

McDonnell’s rivals on the left of the party are believed to have fallen short for one reason or another. Clive Lewis, who many party activists believe could provide Corbynism without the historical baggage of the man himself, is unlikely to be able to secure the nominations necessary to make the ballot.

Any left candidate’s route to the ballot paper runs through the 2015 intake, who are on the whole more leftwing than their predecessors. But Lewis has alienated many of his potential allies, with his antics in the 2015 intake’s WhatsApp group a sore point for many. “He has brought too much politics into it,” complained one MP who is also on the left of the party. (The group is usually used for blowing off steam and arranging social events.)

Lisa Nandy, who is from the soft left rather than the left of the party, is widely believed to be in the running also, despite her ruling out any leadership ambitions in a recent interview with the New Statesman.However, she would represent a break from the Corbynite approach, albeit a more leftwing one than Dan Jarvis or Hilary Benn.

Local party chairs in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is profiling should another leadership election arise. One constituency chair noted to the New Statesman that: “you could tell who was going for it [last time], because they were desperate to speak [at events]”. Tom Watson, Caroline Flint, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall all visited local parties across the country in preparation for their election bids in 2015.

Now, speaking to local party activists, four names are mentioned more than any other: Dan Jarvis, currently on the backbenches, but in whom the hopes – and the donations – of many who are disillusioned by the current leadership are invested, Gloria De Piero, who is touring the country as part of the party’s voter registration drive, her close ally Jon Ashworth, and John McDonnell.

Another close ally of Corbyn and McDonnell, who worked closely on the leadership election, is in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is gearing up for a run should the need arise.  “You remember when that nice Mr Watson went touring the country? Well, pay attention to John’s movements.”

As for his chances of success, McDonnell may well be even more popular among members than Corbyn himself. He is regularly at or near the top of LabourList's shadow cabinet rankings, and is frequently praised by members. Should he be able to secure the nominations to get on the ballot, an even bigger victory than that secured by Corbyn in September is not out of the question.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.