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12 December 2014

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.

By New Statesman

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.

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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.