Whatever happened to Labour winning back Scotland?

A country's former masters are fighting to survive. 

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On 11 August, Jeremy Corbyn’s new shadow Scottish secretary, a man from the North East of England called Dave Anderson, went to visit Aberdeen. And there, he dropped a bombshell. 

In a speech, he said a deal with the SNP was something the party should “at least think about”. STV reported it under the headline: “Labour: Deal with SNP 'a price worth paying' to stop Tories.” 

The Scottish Labour activists who read it were incandescent with rage. 

“I’m absolutely furious about it,” said Duncan Hothersall, who runs Labour discussion blog Labour Hame. “Judging by the messages I've received and seen elsewhere, I'm far from alone.”

Indeed, the comment has sparked widespread agreement amongst Labour’s fractious Scottish players. James Kelly, the Labour and Co-operative MSP for the Glasgow Region tweeted: “Scottish Labour will have no truck with general election deals with the SNP. We won't give power to a party that wants to split the country.”

The MSP for the Lothians, pro-Corbyn Neil Findlay, declared he agreed with Kelly: “100 per cent”.

Despite the anger, it is hard to avoid the fact that Labour in Scotland is fighting for survival. It has been crushed by the Scottish National Party in both the Scottish and Westminster parliaments. Its only representative in Westminster, Ian Murray, quit the shadow cabinet in June (hence the appointment of a Sunderland man as his replacement). 

But just ten years ago, Scotland was Fortress Labour. How did the party’s fortunes crumble so fast – and can it ever win Scotland back?

Labour's fortress

When I was growing up around the turn of the millennium, Edinburgh was about as Labour as it was possible to be. There, in the stately north west of the city, was Fettes, alma mater of Tony Blair. There, in the centre, was Edinburgh University, where Gordon Brown first cut his teeth. (There, also, were two of the devils New Labour made its economic pact with – the Royal Bank of Scotland and the Bank of Scotland, the local face of HBOS.) At election time, the city’s windows were plastered with red. 

In 2001, five out of six Edinburgh constituencies were Labour (one was Lib Dem). In 2005, four out of five were. 

But ten years later, the political landscape changed utterly. Gone was the Lib Dem seat. Gone were all but one of the Labour MPs. The map of Edinburgh was now a bright, Scottish National Party-tinged yellow. 

The same pattern was repeated elsewhere. In 2005, Labour held 41 of the 59 Scottish constituencies – nearly 70 per cent. The Lib Dems were the second biggest party, with 11. Trailing third was the SNP. There was just one Tory MP, David Mundell. After two pandas arrived at Edinburgh Zoo, he became the butt of a joke: “There are more pandas than Tory MPs in Scotland.”

But then came the Scottish referendum. Alistair Darling, the former Chancellor, led the Scottish Labour MPs in a campaign for a No vote, but Labour's rest-of-UK MPs largely ignored the threat until polls veering towards independence sent them tripping over themselves to catch a train north. More damningly, perhaps, they did so to join an alliance of pro-unionist parties that was perceived by many voters to be following the path set by the Tories.

Voters chose to stay in the UK, but withdrew their support from Labour all the same. In 2015, the SNP grabbed 56 seats – nearly 95 per cent of Scottish representation. Suddenly, Labour and the Lib Dem MPs too found themselves rarer than the pandas. It is a remarkable victory for the SNP, and a disaster for Labour. 

The day after the election, the now constituency-less Jim Murphy declared he would stay on as Labour leader. 

In a short speech, Murphy acknowledged: “We have been overwhelmed by history and by circumstance.”  He added:

"Labour has been the biggest and most progressive force for change in Scottish history.

"We will be again."

It was a typically tenacious speech from Murphy, who had braved insults and even an egg during a hundred-stop tour of Scotland during the referendum. 

But in the end, it was one of his last. He survived a vote of no confidence, but stood down as leader within a month. And then, slowly, the Labour movement began to forget about Scotland altogether. 

A predatory alliance

Scottish Labour chose a new leader, Kezia Dugdale (pictured centre, between the Tory leader Ruth Davidson and the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon), and started afresh. But any hopes were dashed in May 2016, when Scottish Labour came third in the Scottish parliamentary elections. It was beaten, humiliatingly by a resurgent Tory party. 

In England, Labour MPs from all wings of the party seem to have moved on, even before Anderson’s remarks. “Labour has lost Scotland”, the former Southampton MP John Denham declared that May. The rising star Keir Starmer told me in July that “it will be increasingly difficult to keep Scotland as part of the UK”.

Corbyn allies are similarly complacent about the future of Scotland. Writing in The New Statesman, the Hackney MP Diane Abbott praised Corbyn’s success in by-elections, without any mention of the dismal defeat north of the border. In the wake of Brexit, the Norwich South MP Clive Lewis breezily imagined a “progressive alliance” including Labour, the Greens and the SNP. 

“I think what people are missing is that the SNP are not left-wing,” said Hothersall from Labour Hame. “They are not potential allies in a ‘progressive alliance’. 

“The idea that we could ally with them is just ludicrous.”

He believes that something more fundamental is changing in English attitudes within the party: “There has been quite an ‘othering’ of Scotland, [an attitude] that there is nothing we can do here.”

There are, of course, Labour supporters in Scotland who think differently. Groups such as Labour for Scottish Independence have thousands of followers. Henry McLeish, a former Labour first minister, has described Brexit as a “game changer” in terms of his support for independence. In June, Scottish Labour consulted members on its future, which included the prospect of quitting the UK parliament altogether. 

But if you’re a progressive unionist in any part of the UK, Scotland matters. In the 2015 election, Labour ended the night with 232 seats. If it could capture the 56 SNP seats, it would need another 42 just to level with the Conservatives. As it stands, it needs 98 more. 

And thanks to first past the post, Scotland matters disproportionately. The SNP won a third less votes than Ukip, yet it captured 56 times the seats. This is simply because SNP voters are grouped together geographically, so their vote combines to make a majority, whereas Ukip voters are scattered throughout the country. 

Put this altogether, and it is difficult to imagine the Labour party ever winning again across the UK without reconnecting with its Scottish base. 

The axis of Scottish politics

On my visits to Edinburgh in recent years, I have been struck by change – first, the demise of the banks, then the Yes posters, and finally the unfamiliar names of the city’s new political masters. But when I met Daniel Johnson (pictured above) in his Scottish parliamentary constituency, Edinburgh Southern, I felt that the political landscape of my childhood might not be so far away after all. 

Johnson won his seat in 2016, from the SNP, and he is the kind of politician of whom New Labour might approve. His background is in business, and he talks of “transforming people’s life chances” and “investing in local schools” rather than scolding the city’s bankers. 

More pertinently, though, Johnson is clearly opposed to a second referendum on Scottish independence. This went down well in his affluent constituency, where two-thirds of voters opted to remain in the UK. (After Anderson’s comments about an SNP deal, he tweeted: “You cannot form a UK government with a party that wants to break up the UK.”)

Johnson is clear-eyed about the reasons for his victory. He described independence as “the axis” of the Scottish political divide.

“We have to move it on from there,” he told me. “But by default, that is what it will be.”

Understanding this axis helps to explain the resurgence of the Scottish Tories. Outside of Scotland, Tory leader Ruth Davidson is best known for her photo stunts (she was pictured riding astride a tank). But Davidson has skilfully combined a Tory message soft enough to be digested by Scottish voters with a promise to be the party of unionists, and a counterweight to the SNP’s dominance. 

In her foreword to the 2016 manifesto, she declared she needed “people who don’t usually vote Conservative” to help her create “that strong opposition they know our country needs”.

And she continued not with any big vision, but with a promise:

If you vote for me and my team, then I will do a specific job for you. 

- I will hold the SNP to account.

 - I will fight against any attempts to drag our country back to a second independence referendum. 

- And I will make the Scottish Government focus on the issues that matter to you.

Voters listened. May 2016 saw a spectacular Tory surge, with the party nearly doubling its seats in the Scottish parliament. 

The difficulty for Labour is that many of its voters are already on the other side of the axis. According to a February 2015 Ashcroft poll, 95 per cent of Tory voters were staunchly unionist. But more than a third of those who voted Labour in 2010 said they would support the SNP. 

As a result, it might not be surprising that come the 2016 Scottish elections, Labour’s pledge to oppose a second referendum was buried on page 60 of its manifesto. The new leader, Kezia Dugdale instead used her opening address to promise to use devolutionary powers to “stop the cuts”. 

When it comes to Corbynmania, Scottish Labour, like the rest of the party, remains conflicted. He is popular with the grassroots members - in recent days, Scottish constituency Labour parties have generally plumped for Corbyn (at time of writing, these included one Aberdeen CLP, two in Edinburgh four in Glasgow, and Gordon Brown’s local branch, Kirkcaldy). But the political establishment is sceptical. Dugdale has so far refrained from backing Corbyn. Labour’s one Scottish MP, Ian Murray, who also represents Edinburgh South, resigned from the shadow cabinet in June. 

It leaves Scottish Labour looking like a party defined by what it is against: not independence, not the Tories, and not really Corbyn either. So what could it be for, instead? 

Hard yards

Labour’s Scotland of the nineties and noughties may be remembered with nostalgia now, but it was far from the progressive ideal. In fact, it was closer to a benign dictatorship. 

Murray’s predecessor as Edinburgh South MP was Nigel Griffiths, who was dogged by expenses claims. But his case was mild compared to the actions of the devolved Labour first ministers. The aforementioned first minister McLeish was forced to resign in 2001 after it emerged he had been claiming expenses for a constituency office while sub-letting it at the same time. In 2003, his successor as first minister, Jack McConnell, was embroiled in a scandal after it emerged his CLP had paid for a £168 meal for a party worker.

As the Scotsman reported

Here was the first damaging snapshot of Scottish Labour’s modus operandi. The bill was paid from a fund started by a trade union - which collects its cash from the working men and women Labour purports to represent. 

Here, such funds were being creamed off so the party elite - and their acolytes - can upgrade to a five-star hotel rather than endure the hardship of a Travelodge. Hardly the socialist ideal.

The SNP cut its teeth in a devolved Scotland as the opposition to this kind of behaviour. When, in 2007, it first won enough seats to form a government in the Scottish Parliament, I remember many non-Nationalists commenting: “Well, Labour has been the party in power for 50 years.”

Indeed, independence aside, there seems to have been little change to ideology in Scotland. The SNP has continued to promote centre-left policies, to the point it is often accused of being New Labour in different clothes. The independent Scotland promised in the Scottish Government’s 2013 white paper proposes cutting corporation tax and Air Passenger Duty. 

Indeed, campaigning on transparency and accountability might bring Labour in Scotland more rewards than a grand vision. The SNP is yet to reach Labour levels of entitlement, but already the grumble is circulating: “Scotland is a one-party state.” 

In January 2016, Helena Kennedy chaired a discussion on the future of Labour in Scotland. Writing about it for Labour List, she said the group had considered adopting other forms of devolution, which were neither full independence nor the status quo. The group also decided Labour needed to do more to show it was standing up for the national interest. 

But she concluded:

There is also the fact – acknowledged by all – that the SNP has been preparing the ground for this breakthrough for decades. One panellist pointed out that Nicola Sturgeon was using the language of ‘Red Tories’ on the doorsteps against Neil  Kinnock!

More than anything, she suggested, winning back Scotland simply meant putting in more work: “Hard yards. Sometimes in politics there is no substitute."

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.