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.

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Sadiq Khan likely to be most popular Labour leader, YouGov finds

The Mayor of London was unusual in being both well-known, and not hated. 

Sadiq Khan is the Labour politician most likely to be popular as a party leader, a YouGov survey has suggested.

The pollsters looked at prominent Labour politicians and asked the public about two factors - their awareness of the individual, and how much they liked them. 

For most Labour politicians, being well-known also correlated with being disliked. A full 94 per cent of respondents had heard of Jeremy Corbyn, the current Labour leader. But when those who liked him were balanced out against those who did, his net likeability rating was -40, the lowest of any of the Labour cohort. 

By contast, the Labour backbencher and former army man Dan Jarvis was the most popular, with a net likeability rating of -1. But he also was one of the least well-known.

Just four politicians managed to straddle the sweet spot of being less disliked and more well-known. These included former Labour leadership contestants Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham, and Hilary Benn. 

But the man who beat them all was Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of Lodon. 

YouGov's Chris Curtis said that in terms of likeability Khan "outstrips almost everyone else". But since Khan only took up his post last year, he is unlikely to be able to run in an imminent Labour contest.

For this reason, Curtis suggested that party members unhappy with the status quo would be better rallying around one of the lesser known MPs, such as Lisa Nandy, Jarvis or the shadow Brexit minister Keir Starmer. 

He said: "Being largely unknown may also give them the opportunity to shape their own image and give them more space to rejuvenate the Labour brand."

Another lesser-known MP hovering just behind this cohort in the likeability scores is Clive Lewis, a former journalist and army reservist, who served in Afghanistan. 

Lewis, along with Nandy, has supported the idea of a progressive alliance between Labour and other opposition parties, but alienated Labour's more Eurosceptic wing when he quit the frontbench over the Article 50 vote.

There is nevertheless space for a wildcard. The YouGov rating system rewards those who manage to achieve the greatest support and least antagonism, rather than divisive politicians who might nevertheless command deep support.

Chuku Umunna, for example, is liked by a larger share of respondents than Jarvis, but is also disliked by a significant group of respondents. 

However, any aspiring Labour leader should heed this warning - after Corbyn, the most unpopular Labour politician was the former leader, Ed Miliband. 

Who are YouGov's future Labour leaders?

Dan Jarvis

Jarvis, a former paratrooper who lost his wife to cancer, is a Westminster favourite but less known to the wider world. As MP for Barnsley Central he has been warning about the threat of Ukip for some time, and called Labour's ambiguous immigration policy "toxic". 

Lisa Nandy

Nandy, the MP for Wigan, has been whispered as a possible successor, but did not stand in the 2015 Labour leadership election. (She did joke to the New Statesman "see if I pull out a secret plan in a few years' time"). Like Lewis, Nandy has written in favour of a progressive alliance. On immigration, she has stressed the solidarity between different groups on low wages, a position that might placate the pro-immigration membership. 

Keir Starmer

As shadow Brexit minister and a former director of public prosecutions, Starmer is a widely-respected policy heavyweight. He joined the mass resignation after Brexit, but rejoined the shadow cabinet and has been praised for his clarity of thought. As the MP for Holborn and St Pancras, though, he must fight charges of being a "metropolitan elite". 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.