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

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.