By Robin Jackson
The failure of Scottish Labour to match the spectacular General Election advance of Corbyn’s Labour in England and Wales allowed the Tories to benefit from a sharp fall in support for the SNP. The 12 new seats that the Tories won in Scotland were the margin which has allowed Theresa May to project a putative House of Commons majority in alliance with the DUP, rather than be forced to handover to Corbyn or call a new General Election. Although Scottish Labour made some small recovery over 2015, it nonetheless polled less than the Tories and the SNP, meaning Labour came third in vote share for the first time in a general election in Scotland since 1918.
The overall parameters of the General Election result in Scotland were firstly a sharp fall in support for the SNP – as against the 2016 Scottish parliament elections where the SNP retained their 2015 sky-high vote share. Support for Scottish independence has been declining since the EU referendum, with the prospect that Scottish independence within the EU could mean a hard border, including customs and immigration controls, with the rest of the UK. Sturgeon’s decision to call for a second independence referendum therefore put the SNP on the wrong side of the trend among Scottish voters. Going into the 2017 election the SNP was more identified with this call for a second referendum than its opposition to austerity, which is what had previously allowed it to widen its support. This led to a sharp decline in its support in the General Election, with the SNP vote share in Scotland falling by 13.1 per cent to 36.9 per cent.
This was therefore an election in Scotland where Labour could have expected significant gains. The SNP left an open goal for a campaign of Corbynite anti-austerity policies to recover some of Labour’s lost ground in Scotland. But instead, Kezia Dugdale’s Scottish Labour gave formal support to Labour’s manifesto, but primarily continued its previous strategy of focusing on opposing the SNP and Scottish independence in de facto alliance with the other unionist parties, the Tories and the Lib Dems. As a result it was the most pro-unionist party, the Tories, which made the biggest advance, with the electorate polarised on the union rather than on austerity.
On the back of Corbyn’s hugely successful campaign and radical manifesto, in England and Wales Labour’s combined vote share hit 42.3 per cent, increasing 10.4 per cent relative to the 2015 General Election. But in Scotland Labour only advanced by 2.8 per cent, reaching an unimpressive 27.1 per cent.
The Tories, on the other hand, only increased their England and Wales combined vote share by 4.7 per cent, reaching 44.8 per cent, but in Scotland it increased by 13.7 per cent, putting the Tories on 28.6 per cent, their highest vote share in Scotland since the Thatcher Government was first elected in 1979.
Thus the swing to Labour from the Tories in England and Wales was 2.9 per cent, while in Scotland the swing was in the opposite direction – a swing of 5.5 per cent from Labour to the Tories.
The graph below illustrates the pattern of vote shares in Scotland at general elections since 1997.
Share of Scottish vote at General Elections %
Labour had secured the largest vote share in Scotland in every general election from 1964 through to 2010. It first lost this lead in Scotland in 2015, when its vote share collapsed by 17.7 per cent, from 42 per cent to 24.3 per cent, to the overwhelming benefit of the SNP.
The decisive issue in Scottish Labour’s collapse after 2010 has been its continuous political positioning to the right of the SNP on austerity and its de facto alliance with the Tories on independence.
The effect of Labour allying with the Scottish Tories for a No vote in the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence – rather than running its own progressive No campaign – was to simultaneously toxify Labour by its association with the hated Tory ultra-unionists, and render the Tories acceptable again after years of decline.
These errors in the referendum campaign were followed in 2015 with a general election campaign, under the leadership of Jim Murphy, where Scottish Labour – and Labour nationally – attacked the SNP on austerity and cuts from the right.
In 2016, under the leadership of Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour campaigned promising to increase income taxes on everyone by 1p. This across the board tax increase, not on just the top 5 per cent – as per Labour’s Corbynite manifesto – but equally hitting lower and middle income groups, was decisively rejected by voters. At 2016’s Scottish Parliament election Labour’s vote share fell by 8.2 per cent from its 2011 share to 20.8 per cent, and for the first time in such elections Labour slipped to third place in vote share, behind both the SNP and the Tories.
This pattern was broadly repeated in the 2017 local elections when the SNP secured 32.3 per cent of First Preference Votes, the Tories 25.3 per cent and Labour 20.2 per cent, Labour again dropping to third place.
With the SNP identified with calls for a second referendum on independence and Scottish Labour pushing regressive tax rises, there was less enthusiasm for the general election in Scotland than elsewhere. Unlike the rest of the UK, voter turnout in Scotland actually decreased. In the UK as a whole turnout rose 2.5 per cent to 68.7 per cent, whereas in Scotland if fell by 4.6 per cent to 66.4 per cent – the only major part of the UK where turnout dropped.
Scottish Labour’s right wing leadership is damaging Labour. It is presenting the SNP, not the Tories, as Labour’s principal opponent in British politics. It is giving credibility to the Scottish Tories, who are rebuilding their support with appeals to a sectarian unionist anti-Catholic agenda.
Labour’s collapse in Scotland is an important issue for socialists across the whole of Britain as the Tories’ 12 new Scottish seats at Westminster are essential for it establishing a minority government.
To reverse its dramatic decline in Scotland Labour needs to abandon the right-wing policies that have damaged its support. A Scottish version of Jeremy Corbyn’s policy agenda, that opposes the Tories, puts an alternative to austerity and attacks the SNP from the left, is needed to rebuild Labour’s support. Scottish Labour’s failed leadership should step aside and allow a pro-Corbyn left leadership to assume the helm for the struggles that lie ahead.