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30 June 2017

Why is Scottish Labour celebrating? It missed a trick – and perhaps a ton of votes, too

The relentless focus on stopping the Nationalists has done the party no favours – Scottish voters aren’t as tribal as people seem to think.

By Jen stout

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In the run-up to the general election, exasperation on the Scottish left was clear. “I really want to vote for Corbyn”, read many tweets and comments, “but Scottish Labour are such a mess”.

A resident of Edinburgh North and Leith, where the SNP-Labour race was fairly close, shared a photograph of the Labour candidate’s campaign leaflet. The entire first page was about independence. Nicola Sturgeon was named twice in the opening paragraphs. Every tired phrase was there – “another divisive referendum”, “get on with the day job”, “a nation deeply divided”. 

Giant billboards in key locations featured a sinister-looking Sturgeon, and urged Tory voters to “beat the SNP’” by voting Labour. This campaign embodied precisely the “divisive”, tribal politics that Scottish Labour keep trying to condemn. It verged on the surreal – particularly given what was happening south of the border. 

Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale’s U-turn on Corbyn was late and fairly unconvincing. Yet that could have been overcome if the party had really put its weight behind the Corbyn manifesto, given voice to its more left-wing MSPs like Neil Findlay, and embraced the infectious excitement around Labour generally. Instead, the leadership in Scotland seems blinded by its centrist politics and a hatred of nationalism (Scottish nationalism, that is – British is fine). 

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This kind of messaging treated Scottish voters like a bunch of tribal hardliners – but 30 per cent of Labour voters supported independence in 2014. Even with the relentless anti-independence rhetoric, 25 per cent of the party’s vote in this election came from Yes voters. Could it have been higher? 

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Those involved in the left-wing, grassroots aspect of the 2014 referendum campaign – particularly the cross-party Radical Independence Campaign – see similarities between the groundswell of political engagement they experienced then, and what is happening with the Corbyn movement now. For many Yes voters, independence was a means to an end. If a return to “real” Labour at a UK level offers those same ends, many would vote for Labour. You can still be pro-independence while wanting UK politics and society to benefit from a progressive government. It shouldn’t be such a surprise that people are capable of nuanced positions. 

Of course, significant numbers of people in Scotland are anti-independence and perhaps are content to hear Labour bang on about the “Nats”. And another large chunk are resolutely pro-independence, and turn towards the SNP.

But ignoring the broad left vote by failing to fully back Corbyn, whilst simultaneously driving away left-wing Yes voters with angry rhetoric, does not seem to be a winning strategy. Ideological difference has returned to politics, and with voters tiring of the SNP’s boring managerialism, Dugdale’s party could have capitalised hugely. Rather than the “stunning victory” she announced, it looked like a massive missed opportunity – particularly given the number of seats that were tantalisingly close. 

For the first time in decades, the Scottish electorate may actually influence the outcome of Westminster elections again. If another vote is on the horizon, much could depend on whether Scottish Labour can up its game.