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15 June 2015

No members, no money: why “going it alone“ is a more difficult route for Scottish Labour than you might think

A lively debate is raging over whether Scottish Labour should go it alone. That may cause more problems than it solves. 

By Stephen Bush

Should Labour go it alone in Scotland? After that party’s epochal defeat north of the border, the party is split as to whether it would be better for Scottish Labour to form a separate party, similar to the relationship between Labour and the SDLP in Northern Ireland, or that between the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the main party of the German centre-right, and the Christian Social Union (CSU), which contests elections in Bavaria and forms a permanent alliance with its bigger cousin.

But membership figures, released to the New Statesman, reveal the extent to which any separate Scottish Labour party would face an uphill battle for financial survival and viability. Fewer than 13,000 people are members of the Labour Party in Scotland. Just eight Scottish constituency Labour parties have more members than there in Northern Ireland, where the party does not stand and where membership was prohibited until 2004.

The membership figures, which predate the post-election surge in membership, slightly underestimates membership figures in the North-East, Wales and London, where the surge is concentrated, but overestimates membership in Scotland, where numerous members have defected to the SNP. One constituency chair says that “direct debit cancellations outnumber new members by two to one”.

Although Labour membership in Scotland is slightly higher in terms of raw numbers than either the East Midlands or the East of England, where the party performs poorly in national elections, and is ahead of the relative strongholds of Wales and the North East, they underperform both areas heavily on a per head basis. Wales and the North East have more Labour members per person than anywhere outside London. Scotland, in contrast, is ahead only of the East of England, where Labour has just two MPs.

In comparison, the SNP, Labour’s main opposition in Scotland, has more than 1,000 members per constituency in every part of Scotland. The highest constituency membership for Labour, in contrast, is North Ayrshire & Arran, where Labour has just under 600 members.

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It may be that the Scottish Labour party decides these obstacles are worth overcoming. One senior Labour staffer in London points out that “in 2000, the SNP had no members, no money and no real hope – look at them now”. They argue that until the Labour north of the border can overcome the argument it is a “London branch office” it will never take power again.

But as the numbers show, if Scottish Labour go it alone, it will be a very, very lonely road in terms of both money and activists.

Additional reporting by Stephanie Boland.