Since the independence referendum, the news from Scotland for Labour has been unremittingly grim. Despite their double-digit defeat, the nationalists moved with remarkable ease to frame the debate that followed. “They had a plan and we didn’t,” one shadow cabinet minister told me recently. While Nicola Sturgeon seamlessly replaced Alex Salmond as First Minister and SNP leader, Scottish Labour collapsed into crisis. A succession of polls gave the nationalists a lead of more than 20 points as Holyrood and Westminster voting intention aligned. The election of Jim Murphy as the party’s new leader in December failed to produce any early dividend; Labour appeared on course to lose as many as half of its 40 Scottish seats (not assuming a uniform swing).
But last weekend brought rare cause for hope. A new survey by Panelbase (the nationalists’ pollster of choice) put the SNP’s lead down from 17 points to 10 (41-31) – its smallest advantage for three months. Another poll, conducted by Survation for the Daily Record, showed the party’s lead falling from 24 points to 20 (46-26). To be sure, these are merely two snapshots and the SNP’s lead remains of a level that would have been considered remarkable in the pre-referendum era. But they are the first indication that the nationalists’ advance may not be inexorable. Labour has long hoped to win back the “red nats” by framing the general election as a straight choice between a Labour government or a Conservative one. As a shadow cabinet minister observed to me, by ruling out any deal with the Tories in a hung parliament, but refusing to do so in the case of Labour, the SNP has implicitly conceded that the latter is superior to the former.
There are some signs that the collapse in the price of oil – to the point where it may become unprofitable for North Sea firms to produce – has harmed the nationalists’ cause. The Panelbase poll found that 22 per cent of SNP supporters believe that the crisis has weakened the case for independence. The party’s traditional claim that Scotland’s black gold would compensate for its inferior fiscal position is even less persuasive than before.
But Labour figures make no attempt to diminish the scale of the task that remains. One Scottish Labour MP told me: “The emotional fallout from the referendum is as damaging for us as the poll tax was for the Tories in the 1980s.” The sight of Labour fighting alongside Conservatives in defence of the Union is one that some of its traditional supporters will not forgive or forget. Murphy is regarded by most in the party as having performed exceptionally since becoming leader, bringing much-needed competence and vigour to the party. But Labour MPs believe, in the words of one that, that “our biggest opponent is time”. With only a few months to reverse the SNP’s huge advance, most would settle for a dozen losses. Against this, one SNP source told me that the party stood to gain a minimum of six from Labour and a maximum of 17, with the former more likely. The nationalists are more optimistic in the case of the Liberal Democrats, They believe they can win 10-11 Lib Dem seats if just a quarter of the party’s 2010 vote swings its way (a result that would leave just Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael standing).
All agree, however, that Labour will lose MPs in Scotland, an area where it had previously hoped to make gains (or at least hold its 2010 level). In a close election, the danger remains that the party’s hopes of victory could die in the country where it was born.