Scottish Labour has lost an empire and not yet found a role

In the post-referendum age, the party shows little sign of breaking out of third place. 

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Is there a way back for Scottish Labour? The party remains in a wretchedly limp condition, third in the polls behind the hated Tories, with the SNP barely visible on the horizon. Its attempt to ride the Corbyn wave, choosing a leader (Richard Leonard) with the same left-wing tendencies, promising Scots a high-tax, big-state agenda, is failing.

It emerged this week that the party has lost around a fifth of its members over the past year. Figures leaked to the Herald on Sunday showed a drop from 25,836 in January 2018 to 21,162 last month. In Glasgow – and without Glasgow and the wider West of Scotland, Scottish Labour is nothing - membership of the city’s nine constituency branches in the city fell from 5,814 to 4,269. In Eastwood, home to a significant part of Scotland’s Jewish community, there was a reduction of 38 per cent.

These are not the statistics of a party that is about to seize power. Even after 12 years in office, and with plenty troubles of their own, the SNP’s main fear as the 2021 Scottish parliament election approaches will be that Labour can scrabble enough seats to deny the Nats a pro-independence majority. The only threat to the throne of Nicola Sturgeon – and it remains a remote one – comes from Ruth Davidson, not Leonard.

It’s quite the fall for a party that dominated Scotland at both the national and municipal level for decades, and that long provided the intellectual and moral spine of UK Labour. The SNP now controls Glasgow City Council, and runs Edinburgh as the major partner in coalition with Labour. Davidson has brought the Tories back from their own living death north of the Border. First Minister’s Questions is the Nicola vs Ruth show, with Leonard an afterthought.

“It hasn’t been an easy job leading Scottish Labour for a very long time, but Richard Leonard has shown he can make a difficult task even harder,” says one senior figure in the Scottish party. There was shock last October when Leonard fired Jackie Baillie and Anas Sarwar, respectively Labour’s economy and health spokespeople and widely regarded as the party’s two highest-performing frontbenchers. As the senior moderates in the party, their departure was viewed as a Corbynite purge. “Good leaders work with the best talent available to them. This made Leonard seem small,” says a source.

Scottish Labour has lost an empire and not yet found a role. Its traditional spot on the centre left – which is probably the electoral sweet spot in Scotland - has been nabbed by the SNP. Davidson has largely kept the Tories on the centre right, which means the centre ground has become rather crowded. In choosing Leonard as leader, Scottish Labour threw in its lot with the Corbynite analysis that power could be won from the uncompromising left. That appears to have been a reckless bet. “Scotland is not a left-wing country, so Leonard chose to fight on unfertile territory,” says one disillusioned insider. “He wants to put his arms around a working class that no longer exists. To valorise and glamorise the working class. Labour has always been at its strongest when it has sought to lift people out of difficult conditions and address their aspirations. The reason both the SNP and the Tories are hogging the centre ground is that’s where the votes are.”

Scottish Labour has also been damaged by the tail winds of the 2014 independence referendum. For many Scots that vote remains the binary, definitive political moment of their lives. Davidson has taken an unflinchingly Unionist position, while the SNP continues relentlessly to push for a second referendum. Labour has, at times, been ambiguous on the constitutional issue, leaving itself open to anger from both Yes and No voters. Similarly, Leonard has been gnomish on Brexit, leading to suspicions that he, like Corbyn, is a Lexiteer, which may be ill-advised in a nation that voted 62 per cent Remain.

With the 2021 election coming into sight, there is no real time for Scottish Labour to change either course or leader. Nor does Leonard show any inclination to rethink. He is a conviction politician who sees himself as the champion of the working man – higher wages, better working conditions, higher taxes on the affluent (even though the SNP have put them up, Labour says they have not gone far enough), stricter regulation of big business, a greater emphasis on public services at the expense of the private sector.

It will all doubtless appeal to some, but in the end probably not to enough. The harsh truth is that at the moment, there’s just no room for the Scottish Labour Party.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).