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
Show Hide image

Is Scottish Labour on the way back, or heading for civil war?

There are signs of life, but also recriminations.

The extraordinary rise of the Scottish Tories and the collapse in SNP seat numbers grabbed most of the headlines in the recent general election. Less remarked on was the sudden, unexpected exhalation of air that came from what was thought to be the corpse of Scottish Labour.

In 2015, Labour lost 40 of its 41 Scottish seats as the SNP rocketed from six to 56, was wiped out in its Glaswegian heartlands, and looked to have ceded its place as the choice of centre-left voters – perhaps permanently – to the Nationalists. But while the electorate’s convulsion in June against the SNP’s insistence on a second independence referendum most benefited Ruth Davidson, it also served to reanimate Labour.

The six seats grabbed back (making a total of seven) included three in the West of Scotland, proving that the Nat stranglehold on Labour’s territory was not quite as secure as it had seemed. There is, it appears, life in the old dog yet.

Not only that, but the surprise success of Jeremy Corbyn across the UK has stiffened Labour’s spine when it comes to insisting that it, and not the SNP, is the rightful home of Scotland’s socialists.

Corbyn was largely kept south of the border during the election campaign – Kezia Dugdale, the leader at Holyrood, had supported Owen Smith’s leadership challenge. But in August, Corbyn will embark on a five-day tour of marginal SNP constituencies that Labour could potentially take back at the next election. The party has set a target of reclaiming 18 Scottish seats as part of the 64 it needs across Britain to win a majority at Westminster. The trip will focus on traditional areas such as Glasgow and Lanarkshire, where tiny swings would return seats to the People’s Party. Dugdale is no doubt hoping for some reflected glory.

Corbyn will present himself as the authentically left-wing choice, a leader who will increase public spending and invest in public services compared to the austerity of the Tories and the timidity of the SNP. “Labour remains on an election footing as a government-in-waiting, ready to end failed austerity and ensure that Scotland has the resources it needs to provide the public services its people deserve,” he said. “Unlike the SNP and the Tories, Labour will transform our economy through investment, insisting that the true wealth creators - that means all of us – benefit from it.”

The SNP has benefited in recent years from the feeling among many north of the border that Labour and the Tories were committed to differing shades of a similar economic programme, that was starving public services of cash and that paid little attention to Scottish desires or needs. But as the Nats’ spell in government in Edinburgh has worn on, first under Alex Salmond and now Nicola Sturgeon, with little being done to tackle the nation’s social problems, patience has started to run out.

Dugdale said yesterday that she “looked forward to joining Jeremy in August as we take our message to the people of Scotland”. That’s not a sentiment we would have heard from her before June. But it does raise the future spectacle of Davidson’s Tories battling for the centre and centre-right vote and Labour gunning for the left. The SNP, which has tried to be all things to all people, will have to make a choice – boasting that it is “Scotland’s Party” is unlikely to be enough.

The 20th anniversary of the referendum that delivered the Scottish Parliament is almost upon us. Then, Scottish Labour provided the UK and the Westminster government with figures of the stature of Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, Donald Dewar and George Robertson. That was a long time ago, and the decline in quality of Labour’s representatives both in London and Edinburgh since has been marked. The SNP’s decade of success has attracted much of the brightest new talent through its doors. Young Scots still seem to be set on the idea of independence. Labour has a credibility problem that won’t be easily shaken off.

But still, the body has twitched – perhaps it’s even sitting up. Is Scottish Labour on the way back? If so, is that down to the SNP’s declining popularity or to Corbyn’s appeal? And could Dugdale be a convincing frontwoman for a genuinely left-wing agenda?

There may be trouble ahead. Yesterday, the Scottish Labour Campaign for Socialism – whose convener, Neil Findlay MSP, ran Corbyn’s leadership campaign in Scotland – accused Dugdale of “holding Corbyn back” in June. A spokesperson for the group said: “While it’s great we won some seats back, it’s clear that the campaign here failed to deliver. While elsewhere we've seen people being enthused by ‘for the many, not the few’ we concentrated on the dispiriting visionless ‘send Nicola a message’ – and paid a price for that, coming third in votes and seats for the first time in a century. In Scotland we looked more like [former Scottish leader] Jim Murphy’s Labour Party than Jeremy Corbyn’s – and that isn’t a good look.”

While the group insists this isn’t intended as a challenge to Dugdale, that might change if Corbyn receives a rapturous reception in August. We’ll learn then whether Scotland is falling for the high-tax, high-spending pitch that seems to be working so well elsewhere, and whether Scottish Labour has jerked back to life only to find itself staring down the barrel of a civil war.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).