Monday, 9 May 2016

Why Are Labour Doing badly in Scotland?

I know I haven't posted on this blog in a while and most of the posts I have made have been updates to previously existing pages but after years of abstinence I've started using my Twitter account again, and I'm finding it very difficult to convey a nuanced argument in 140 characters so what I'm planning to do is to write a series of articles on here that I can link to when trying to explain a point online.

One of the most common debating points I keep coming across and have yet to read a proper analysis of, is the question of Labour's poor electoral performance in Scotland.

To remind anyone reading this in the future the Scottish Parliamentary Elections 2016 have just taken place and Labour have come third behind the SNP and the Tories. This article attempts to explain why and to offer a friendly if outsiders suggestion as to how the party can advance.

Suggested reasons I've seen presented include Structural Decline and bad feeling left over from the New Labour years.  I hope to show both of these hypotheses are wrong and to do so I start at the beginning, and in this context the beginning is the UK General Election of 2010.

The UK General Election of 2010

The Labour Party in Scotland went into the 2010 General election with over 50 of Scotland's MPs. In fact the 2010 Election was notable in Scotland in that no seats held by any party changed hands. The electorate held to their allegiances and most MPs across the board were returned with increased majorities.

So what happened to cause the SNP landslide at the Scottish Parliamentary Election in 2011?

Although the political ground in Scotland was firm in 2010, in England it had shifted significantly.  The love-in with Tony Blair's New Labour was over, destroyed by the financial crash of 2008, which saw the first major financial crisis of the Labour Years. Leaving the ground open for the Tory Party under their as yet untested Leader, David Cameron, to sow the seeds of doubt in Labour's financial accuity.

The result of this, and Gordon Brown's unpopularity in England, led to the outcome of the 2010 General Election being a Conservative-led coalition government with the Liberal Democrats.

For Scotland, this was the worst possible outcome.  Scotland had voted Labour in overwhelming numbers and received a Conservative-led government.  The national consciousness went into a kind of mass internalised, but slow, panic. The previous Conservative governments under Thatcher and Major had been openly hostile to Scotland, shutting its heavy industry, stealing the benefits of its oil reserves to fund the bloated South East of England and attacking its ability to deliver public services.

It could be said that the Scottish nation went into a 'circle the wagons' attitude.  The main unspoken question in Scotland became 'Who can protect Scotland from the Tories?'.  Labour were in disarray, suffering the shock of being out of government for the first time in 13 years, and going through an internal re-organisation; they selected Ed Milliband as leader, an able but easily maligned former policy adviser from London with a seat in Darlington.  The Liberal Democrats, often seen as the alternative voices in politics and well represented in rural and Highland Scotland had finally jumped off the fence they had been straddling for decades and had put the hated and feared Tories into power, thus toxifying their brand for years to come. The would go on to lose every mainland seat they held in Scotland.

This left the door open for the SNP, led by the extremely capable Alex Salmond to fill the void.

The SNP's landslide in 2011 was in effect a defensive move by Scotland in reaction to the 2010 Election result.  The SNP were seen by more people in Scotland as capable of defending their country from the Conservative-led government in Westminster than anyone else at that time.

Labour still had them majority of Scottish MPs but they were seen as impotent given their numerical disadvantage in Westminster.


So the SNP are in government in Holyrood from 2011 with a surprising overall majority which made it inevitable that they would hold a referendum on their main constitutional policy, and reason for existence, the Independence of Scotland. To not have done so would have been a betrayal to their long term supporters and would have been seen as political cowardice by their opponents.  It can be argued that the SNP were bumped into a referendum earlier than they had planned, but either way Salmond choose 2014, the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn at which a smaller Scottish force routed a larger and better equipped English army, and secured the Scots ran their own country for the next 400 years, as the date for the referendum.

This gave all the political parties plenty of time set out their positions, form into 'Yes' and 'No' groupings, and for the issue to be widely debated by the Scottish population.

Labour had a number of options open to them but choose, mistakenly I believe, to stick with its traditional position supporting the Union. They could have allowed each member to determine their own choices and 'potentially had spokespeople on both sides of the debate, as they do currently on the issue of membership of the EU, but they rejected that position.  This meant Labour spokespeople were sharing the 'No' platform with the hated Tories and the now distrusted Liberal Democrats.  This fitted the SNP's narrative of 'they're all the same'.

In the end the Independence referendum resulted in a 'No' vote by 55% to 45%, but crucially for Labour the areas which delivered a 'Yes' vote weren't the rural SNP heartlands, but Dundee and the urban central belt areas of Glasgow, North Lanarkshire and West Dumbartonshire. Traditonal Labour voters had been convinced of the veracity of the SNP's flagship policy and had seen it defeated by their own party working with their traditional enemy, the Conservatives.  The political ground had shifted under their feet and where before they had stood on solid Labour Ground they found themselves in secure SNP territory.

After the referendum the SNP continued in power at Holyrood, although Alex Salmond relinquished the leadership of the SNP in favour of his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon. The overall opinion of most people in Scotland is that the SNP, as a government, hadn't done as badly as many feared, given their lack of experience, and the referendum debate had galvanised and politised the population to an unprecedented degree. The gamble of putting what had once been a one-issue party of protest into power appeared to have paid of. So come the 2015 UK General Election most of the SNP voters from 2011, who had mostly been Labour voters as late as 2010, stuck with the party and the result was another SNP landslide, leaving Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories with only one seat each in Scotland. The Labour brand remained tarnished through its association with the Conservatives during the Independence Referendum.

Alex Salmond had as I said handed over the reins at Holyrood to Nicola Sturgeon, and stood successfully as a candidate in the 2015 General Election, returning to Westminster where he had been an MP prior to the establishment of the Scottish Parliament. One interesting aspect of the 2015 General Election was the degree to which it was dominated by Sturgeon, even though she wasn't even a candidate. Her stock grew during this period as much because of the attention given to her by her opponents as by her actions themselves.  Voices in England were heard lamenting the lack of a party like the SNP south of the border.

In 2015, however the climate was slightly different however in that, the polls had shown a Labour victory unlikely and the the Conservatives had played on the possibility of the SNP doing well, thus talking up their vote, as a way to show Labour weak and possibly needing the SNP to form a government.  The irony of the leader of a coalition government using the potential of a coalition government as a weapon of fear was not lost on everyone, but it worked and the 'threat' of an SNP influenced government delivered the tory majority in England that Cameron sought. It also probably played a part in delivering the SNP landslide which the Tory party in England would not have been too unhappy about, as it meant a reduced Labour presence in Westminster.  The SNP had masses of MPs, all but three of Scotland's MPs were now from the party, but they were as impotent as their Labour forebears had been. The political polarisation of the UK into Tory England and not-Tory Scotland was complete.

The Liberal Democrats were all but wiped out in the 2015 Election as the electorate punished them for supporting the tories.  A lot of the Lib Dem vote had been tactical, but with their decision to jump off the fence in 2010 Labour supporters in Tory/Lib Dem marginals saw no advantage in voting tactically for a party in league with the enemy and so voted Labour.  This enabled a number of Tory victories caused, not by a rise in Conservative support, but a drop of Lib Dem support.  For the first time ever, the Liberal Democrats were replaced as Westminster's third party by the SNP. 

The Scottish Parliamentary Election of 2016

And so we come to recent events, the Scottish Parliamentary Election of 2016.

Prior to this election, from a Labour perspective, a couple of key changes had taken place. The Labour Leadership in Scotland, decimated as it had been by the previous SNP landslide was now in the hands of Kezia Dugdale, a new, younger untarnished leader, and notably female.  The Labour Leadership in Westminster had fallen to Jeremy Corbyn, the veteran left winger; a move which a number of prominent right wingers distanced themselves from, and regarded as the first step towards Armageddon, and which left wingers regarded as a return to true Labour values after the Blairite years of New Labour.  Common wisdom would have said that Corbyn's brand of socialism would appeal to the Red Clydeside heartlands but less to the more affluent areas in Edinburgh, the Glasgow suburbs, and rural Scotland.

The Scottish Parliamentary Election also saw a new Tory leader in Scotland, Ruth Davidson, also a younger break with the past for her party. So for the first time all three major parties in Scotland were led by women.  The most interesting factor this brought was that it made no difference whatsoever as people in Scotland appear to be less concerned with a politician's gender and sexuality (two of three being open about being in same sex relationships, and as it matters so little I'm not even going to say which two) than their plans on how to run the country.

So we have the situation in which an incumbent SNP government in seen to have performed reasonably well, a Tory government is in place in Westminster, Labour having failed to prevent this and Liberal Democrats still largely in exile due to their previous act of treachery in putting the 2010 - 2015 government into power, and people are asked to vote for a new Scottish Parliament.

Those who had voted SNP in 2010 and 2015 see that their votes mostly had the defensive effect that wanted. The SNP government in Scotland had protected the country from the worst of the Tory excesses south of the border. The SNP had also, by steering a distinctly Scottish left of centre approach, appealed to Labour minded voters who may be tired of their party's electoral failures.  The SNP voters who they had picked up from the Tories during the Tories' worst years of decline were in part won back by Ruth Davidson's optimistic but realistic approach. She never claimed to be campaigning for power but to be an effective opposition, an argument that appeals to many who value democracy, thus conceding victory to the SNP from the start. The 'alternative left' vote was being swept up by the Scottish Green Party, who had been on the 'Yes' side during the Independence referendum and thus were not tarnished by association with other parties. The Scottish Left, ow is form of Rise had less impact than their forebears in Solidarity and the Scottish Socialist Parties had done.

The Greens went on to pick up seats in the 2016 Scottish Parliamentary election, and it is to the issue of party structure I want to consider next as this is significant in understanding the rise of the Scottish Green Party..

Party Structures

Labour, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are all structurally Unionist parties, that is they are each one party covering, either all the United Kingdom or covering England, Scotland and Wales and having a sister party in Northern Ireland, The Conservatives with the Ulster Unionist, Labour with the SDLP, the Lib Dems with the Alliance Party.

The Green Party is actually three separate parties, the Green Party of England and Wales, the Green Party of Northern Ireland and the Scottish Green Party.  Each of these parties manage their own affairs, elect their own leaders and while they share a common philosophy, determine their own policies.  This is why the Scottish Green Party was able to adopt a pro-Independence position without reference to the anyone in England.  Although Labour in Scotland brand themselves as 'Scottish Labour' they are in fact a regional part of a national organisation, Labour members in Scotland are members of The Labour Party, not Scottish Labour.

During the period of Conservative government pre-1997 the influence of the Scots in the Labour Party, which reflected their electoral strength at a time when Labour in England were in a minority, led to some resentment in England.  Conversely the decline of Labour in Scotland now has Labour seen there as being dominated by the party in England. Both of these perceptions result from Labour being one party on both sides of the border.

The Future

Labour in Scotland has to make a break with its past if it is to have any hope of re-gaining its traditional dominance in Scottish politics.  In some parts of the country it is seen as lazy, corrupt and arrogant, expecting support without earning it. Some candidates were in the past seen as lacking ability but got elected because of the colour of the rosette they wore.  Whether this is a fair analysis or not doesn't matter, it is the way a significant number of Labour people were viewed.  The clear out of the old leadership and their replacement with Kezia Dugdale should be seen in time as a step in the right direction and anyone who holds her responsible for the 2016 result simply isn't looking at the long term picture.

Labour in Scotland will continue to be tarnished with the Unionist and 'just like the Tories' labels unless Jeremy Corbyn's leadership provides a sufficiently distinct change of image bringing traditional working class socialism back to forefront in place of some of the perceived Westminster Bubble issues.

Labour in Scotland has be seen to be as Scottish as the SNP and do to this I would suggest that it forms its own, separate Scottish Labour Party.  This should not be seen as a rebellion against the party in England but should be negotiated with the party in England, and agreement made that any and all future Scottish Labour MPs in Westminster will take the Labour whip in an arrangement similar to that Labour currently holds with the SDLP.

This would enable the new Scottish Labour Party to decide for itself whether to take a position on Independence which would be different from that of the English party possibly giving each member and spokesperson the ability to speak either 'Yes' or 'No' in the inevitable forthcoming second referendum debate.  There has always been a streak of Nationalism in some Labour people in Scotland as a result of small nation syndrome, but with the party holding a firm Unionist position it has always been suppressed.  If this tendency was allowed to have its voice heard those voters who left because they felt Labour wasn't Scottish enough, could return.

There is a pro-Independence majority in Holyrood but without an absolute majority the SNP are unlikely to seek a second referendum unless pushed to do so by the Scottish Greens, as this would be seen to be a rejection of the democratic will of the people.  The second referendum is more likely to come after 2021 Scottish Parliamentary Election assuming the SNP make it an election commitment and retain control in Holyrood.  This gives all parties the time to re-evaluate and re-frame their policy on the issue. Labour should learn from the mistake of siding with the Tories and the Lib Dems in the first referendum debate and not repeat it. They should not come out as 100% in favour of Independence as this would alienate the Unionist majority but allow their elected representatives at all levels to hold and express a personal opinion as they are doing currently on the EU referendum.