The surge of the SNP could tip Labour into losing many of its seats in Scotland in next year’s election. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Leader: Labour’s Scotland problem

The idea that a new Scottish Labour leader might be a panacea for the party, as some suggest, is nonsense. Labour’s Scottish problem is deep and structural.

A few weeks before the 2011 Scottish general election, a perplexed Ed Miliband asked a New Statesman staff member why we had published a leader about Scotland in which we warned of the consequences of a victory for the Scottish National Party. His bafflement reflected a fundamental truth: for too long, Labour had been complacent about Scotland and seemed not to have understood the forces that were powering the rise of the SNP and the wider independence movement. It was deservedly routed in that election, which set us on the path to where we are today, with the SNP established as the natural party of government in Scotland.

Labour’s troubles are many in Scotland. It has long since lost the support and respect of the intelligentsia – the writers, commentators, musicians and artists who create a climate and culture. Worse, it has given the impression of neglecting its core vote. This is not just a Scotland-specific phenomenon. In 2010, there was a turnout of just 58.9 per cent in the 100 safest Labour seats.

Labour’s Scottish problem, then, is perhaps less one of policy than of tone and perception. The party has allowed a chasm to grow between itself and the electorate. Too many in Labour regarded Scotland as home territory, where easy wins could be recorded. Devolution was seen as an end, rather than the beginning of a process that would lead to Scotland gaining even greater autonomy.

The surge of the SNP, whose membership has risen from 25,000 to 92,000 in the three months since the referendum, could tip Labour into losing many of its seats in Scotland in next year’s election. (It holds 41 out of 59 in total.) In 2010 the SNP won six seats at Westminster; even conservative estimates predict that the figure could treble next May. And it is not only the SNP which is rising: the Scottish Green Party now has 8,000 members. (Scottish Labour is believed to have no more than 10,000.)

The resignation of Johann Lamont, and the resulting leadership election, offers Scottish Labour an opportunity to reinvigorate itself. After decades of treating Scotland as little more than a one-party state, it faces the urgent task of rebuilding its movement and making itself relevant again for the people whom it was established to represent.

Jim Murphy is expected to win the leadership of Scottish Labour on 13 December. He would be a sensible choice. He is a former cabinet minister and an independent thinker, and he would have the authority to challenge the party at Westminster. [Editor's note: Jim Murphy did win the leadership contest.]

In his 100-day tour to save the Union during the referendum campaign, Mr Murphy showed an admirable relish for the fight and a gift for popular communication. With the exception of Gordon Brown, he was the most impressive of the Westminster politicians who fought to defend the Union. Over recent weeks, Mr Murphy has run an energetic and pragmatic campaign. Unfairly caricatured as a “Blairite”, he has come belatedly to support greater devolution. He has shown skill in explaining what connects his challenging upbringing in Glasgow to his commitment to Labour.

His supporters hope that his election as leader will herald an era of renewal for Labour as well as demonstrating that a politician of ambition need not leave Scotland in order to have an influential and fulfilling career.

However, the idea that a new Scottish Labour leader might be a panacea for the party, as some suggest, is nonsense. Labour’s Scottish problem is deep and structural. Many on the left have given up on the party altogether. Radical pro-independence groupings are flourishing. And Alex Salmond, the former SNP leader, is intent on returning to Westminster. For too long complacent, Labour now understands the strength of the opposition to it in Scotland. If it cannot win here, its chances of ever governing again as a majority party in Westminster are bleak indeed.

This article first appeared in the 09 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, How Isis hijacked the revolution

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Who really controls the Labour Party now?

Jeremy Corbyn's allies will struggle to achieve their ambition to remove general secretary Iain McNicol.

Jeremy Corbyn's advance at the general election confirmed his place as Labour leader. Past opponents recognise not only that Corbyn could not be defeated but that he should not be.

They set him the test of winning more seats – and he passed. From a position of strength, Corbyn was able to reward loyalists, rather than critics, in his shadow cabinet reshuffle. 

But what of his wider control over the party? Corbyn allies have restated their long-held ambition to remove Labour general secretary Iain McNicol, and to undermine Tom Watson by creating a new post of female deputy leader (Watson lost the honorific title of "party chair" in the reshuffle, which was awarded to Corbyn ally Ian Lavery).

The departure of McNicol, who was accused of seeking to keep Corbyn off the ballot during the 2016 leadership challenge, would pave the way for the removal of other senior staff at Labour HQ (which has long had an acrimonious relationship with the leader's office). 

These ambitions are likely to remain just that. But Labour figures emphasise that McNicol will remain general secretary as long he retains the support of the GMB union (of which he is a former political officer) and that no staff members can be removed without his approval.

On the party's ruling National Executive Committee, non-Corbynites retain a majority of two, which will grow to three when Unite loses a seat to Unison (now Labour's biggest affiliate). As before, this will continue to act as a barrier to potential rule changes.

The so-called "McDonnell amendment", which would reduce the threshold for Labour leadership nominations from 15 per cent of MPs to 5 per cent, is still due to be tabled at this year's party conference, but is not expected to pass. After the election result, however, Corbyn allies are confident that a left successor would be able to make the ballot under the existing rules. 

But Labour's gains (which surprised even those close to the leader) have reduced the urgency to identify an heir. The instability of Theresa May's government means that the party is on a permanent campaign footing (Corbyn himself expects another election this year). For now, Tory disunity will act as a force for Labour unity. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

0800 7318496