by Barry Gray
The Scottish Labour leadership contest this autumn is important for the entire Labour Party in Britain, because how the party performs in Scotland will be a significant factor in whether Labour can form the next UK government. For Labour to win it is vital Scottish Labour improves on its poor performances at the 2015 and 2017 general elections. That requires the Scottish party to change its political orientation. A new leadership is needed that will promote Jeremy Corbyn’s popular anti-austerity agenda to the Scottish electorate.
Scotland is key to Labour securing a majority at Westminster. Currently Labour would need to gain an extra 64 seats at the next general election; of these 18 – that is more than a quarter – are in Scotland.
Winning an extra 18 seats for Labour in Scotland is unlikely if Scottish Labour continues positioning itself to the right as it has done in recent years, as this has resulted in a catastrophic fall in support for Labour in Scotland – as is argued below – and from which it scarcely began to recover in 2017.
Scotland is represented at Westminster by 59 MPs and, until the 2015 election, was regarded as a Labour stronghold. But that changed dramatically in 2015. In 2005 Labour won 40 MPs in Scotland, in 2010 it won 41, but in 2015 Scotland only returned a single Labour MP, and this was only improved to seven in 2017. At the same time, the Tory vote has considerably recovered; from being almost eliminated from Scottish politics, after this year’s general election the Scottish Tories have more MPs than Scottish Labour for the first time in over 60 years.
Scottish Labour’s 2017 failure
At this year’s general election the Tories gained 12 new seats in Scotland, whereas they made a net loss of 25 seats across the rest of Britain. It is these 12 Tory gains in Scotland that gave Theresa May the numbers to form an alliance with the DUP and establish her minority government.
The number of votes received by the different parties in the 2015 and 2017 general elections, and the changes between the two, reveal the scale of Scottish Labour’s failure this year.
The table below sets out the votes for the main political parties in 2015 and 2017 for Britain as a whole and for Scotland and the changes between the two elections. The graphs illustrate the difference between the voting changes in Britain and Scotland. The figures draw on an excellent analysis by former MSP Lesley Brennan – which everyone who wants Labour to succeed in Scotland should read.
Table 1: Votes cast for the main parties at the 2015 and 2017 general elections and change in vote
At the 2017 general election, in Britain Labour secured the largest increase in numbers of votes – adding 3.5 million to its 2015 total, in comparison to the Tories who added 2.3 million votes. In Scotland on the other hand it was the Tories that made by far the largest gains – gaining an additional 0.3 million votes, with Labour securing less than 10,000 extra votes. Less than 10,000 votes gained by Labour in Scotland when it added 3.5 million in the country as a whole! In Britain as a whole Labour gained more than 15 extra votes for every ten the Tories gained. In Scotland the Tories gained more than 320 votes for every 10 extra votes Labour gained. This miserable failure is why Kezia Dugdale had to go – and should have gone earlier.
The differences in performance between the parties in Scotland and Britain as a whole speak for themselves.
Scottish Labour’s 2017 failure was rooted in its electoral strategy. It was unable to take advantage of the fact that the run up to Polling Day saw a sharp fall in support for the SNP relative to its 2016 Scottish Parliament and 2015 general election performances. The SNP’s vote share at the 2017 general election was 36.9 per cent, down from 50 per cent in 2015.
Scottish Labour’s leadership entirely failed to take advantage of this decline in SNP support, which it could have done by shifting the ground from for or against Scottish independence – which polarises the debate between the SNP on the one hand and the pro-Union Tories on the other – to setting an agenda against austerity which would have polarised the debate between the SNP and the Tories on one side, and Labour on the other.
Instead, Kezia Dugdale’s campaign continued the, already tested and failed, strategy of primarily opposing the SNP and Scottish independence, in a de facto alliance with the other pro-unionist parties, the Tories and the Lib Dems. Labour voters in Scotland are very much divided on the issue of independence, whereas the issue of the union unites SNP and Tory supporters into opposing camps. Choosing to polarise the electorate on the issue of the union rather than on the issue of austerity inevitably aided the most pro-unionist party, the Tories, to make the biggest advance in the context of some significant decline in support for independence in Scotland following the 2016 vote for Brexit in the EU referendum.
An independent Scotland in the context of a soft border with the rest of the UK as both would be in the EU – the context of the 2014 independence debate – is a very different prospect from an independent Scotland with a hard border with the rest of the UK, which is Scotland’s main trading and economic partner. Customs and immigration controls with the rest of the UK would have a huge adverse impact on the Scottish economy and living standards. When, after the EU referendum, the SNP called for a second independence referendum it found itself clashing with a shift in opinion amongst Scottish voters that was going in the opposite direction.
But by continuing to present the SNP as the main enemy in Scotland, rather than turning Labour’s fire on the Tories, while letting the political process work through in reducing the SNP’s vote, Kezia Dugdale’s policy tail-ended the Tories’ Scottish agenda and de facto aided the surge in support for the Tories.
As it did in the rest of Britain, Labour could have made significant gains in Scotland by prioritising promoting Corbyn’s anti-austerity policies. It did not do this, but instead just gave formal support to Corbyn’s manifesto and focussed its attacks on the SNP and anti-independence, not the Tories and anti-austerity.
Scottish Labour needs to fight the Tories
The graph below showing vote shares of the main parties at the last three general elections in Scotland illustrates how the votes have shifted since 2010, covering the period of the 2014 independence referendum, the 2015 General Election, the 2016 EU referendum and Scottish Parliament elections and the 2017 General Election this year.
Figure 2: Share of Scottish vote at general elections 2010 to 2017 (per cent)
From 1964 through to 2010 Labour secured the largest vote share in Scotland at every general election. It lost that lead in 2015, when its vote share collapsed to 24.3 per cent from 42 per cent in 2010. That share only rose to 27.1 per cent in 2017.
It is the right wing policies of Scottish Labour over this period that lay behind this, and should now be changed.
From before the Scottish Independence referendum in 2014 Scottish Labour has positioned itself to the right of the SNP and its prime focus has been to attack the SNP, not the Tories. It is this orientation – reinforced by a number of right wing policies – that has led to the slashing of Labour support over this period, and also contributed to the sharp rise in the SNP and, in 2017, the recovery of the Tories.
A key element of this has been the reality that Scottish Labour has prioritised opposing the SNP in Scotland over maintaining clear water between Labour and the Tories, whose austerity policies under Cameron and now May were responsible for real falls in Scottish working class living standards.
A huge error was the approach to the independence referendum in 2014. Instead of Labour running its own progressive ‘No’ campaign, Scottish Labour allied with the Scottish Tories, who were explicitly mobilising ‘No’ votes with appeals to a sectarian, unionist, anti-Catholic agenda. Labour put no clear separate progressive case for No, until Gordon Brown was brought in very late in the day, and the whole referendum campaign reinforced an emerging trend in Scottish politics of polarisation between pro-independence support for the SNP, and pro-union support going to the Tories. Continuing this orientation in 2017, when it was clearly well past its sell-by date, if it was every within one, has helped rehabilitate the Tories.
Additionally, this association with the pro-austerity Tories undermined Labour support on living standards and the economy, further driving a dramatic decline in its support in the run up to the 2015 general election. Under the leadership of Jim Murphy, Scottish Labour – and also UK Labour – attacked the SNP on austerity and cuts from the right. This assisted the SNP’s rise from 19.9 per cent in 2010 to 50 per cent in 2015.
Tax rises on everyone are vote losers
Under the leadership of Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour compounded these problems by campaigning on a pledge for an across the board tax increase of 1p. Some on the left mistakenly supported this policy, but a regressive, across-the-board, tax increase hitting lower and middle income groups, not just the top earners, even it is only 1p, was unpopular across the electorate. This is entirely different from the proposal in UK Labour’s 2017 manifesto to tax the top 5 per cent. With living standards declining in Scotland, voters decisively rejected this pledge of higher taxation for all.
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. Neither of the latter two parties were planning to impose such tax rises.
The 2016 voting pattern was broadly repeated in the May 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.
To win Scottish Labour needs a change in directions
Scottish Labour’s recent leaderships have promoted a right-wing agenda and policies that have alienated large sections of Labour’s previous support. A new leadership direction is urgently needed, that focuses on repairing that damage.
In order to recover its position Scottish Labour needs its own version of Jeremy Corbyn’s policy agenda focussed on how to make people better off, clearly positioning Labour to the left of the SNP on living standards. No new taxes should be proposed that make those on low or middle incomes worse off, protecting 95 per cent of the population should be a priority in Scotland, with policies developed for Scotland in line with UK Labour’s general election manifesto. And Scottish Labour should re-establish that it is the Tories, not the SNP, that are Labour’s principal opponent in British politics. The Tories UK government and its austerity policies are responsible for falling living standards in Scotland, so the Scottish Labour should keep the Tories in its crosshairs, taking up the SNP when it fails to oppose the Tories, rather than vice versa.
Corbynism has shaken up politics in England and Wales. In Scotland, with a change of leadership, it could do likewise and rebuild Labour support for the elections ahead.
Richard Leonard MSP is standing for Scottish Labour Leader. He is the candidate most supportive of Corbyn’s leadership and his campaign on Facebook can be found here.
Nominations opened on Monday 11 September; the last date to join as member, affiliated supporter, or registered supporter, in order to vote in the Leadership ballot is Monday 9 October; the ballot opens on Friday 27 October; and closes on Friday 17 November (12 noon).
The above article was originally published by Left Futures.