The Scottish Labour Party: Condemned To The Political Wilderness?

Rudderless, and pushed to the fringes by the SNP, can the Scottish Labour Party ever be revived?

As Gordon Brown packed up his office in 10 Downing Street after the 2010 election, there was one thing he could take comfort in as his government slid into the history books. The Labour vote in Scotland had remained resolute. Forty-one out of fifty Scottish seats were still painted red and the party’s vote share had actually increased, in contrast to the rest of the United Kingdom. Despite Alex Salmond being in power since 2007 in Edinburgh, Labour had only one less seat in Holyrood, after having held office since the start of devolution in 1999 until the SNP edged them out. At least when Gordon returned to his home in Kirkcaldy, with all that extra time to pop pins in voodoo dolls of Tony Blair, he could be rest assured he was still in safe Labour country.

Fast forward to the present day and the situation for Scottish Labour couldn’t be more desperate. They find themselves in a miserable predicament in the Scottish Parliament, being beaten into third place in 2016 by the Conservatives, triumphant under the then-leadership of Ruth Davidson. The situation in Westminster is even more dire, where the party holds only one Scottish seat, having been pushed into fourth place in last year’s general election. It is obvious that the political situation is the not the same as it was in 2010 – Brexit and the 2014 independence referendum have been fundamental events. However, the party has failed to turn either to its advantage.

It would always be difficult for the UK wide party to create a Brexit policy which satisfied both remain-oriented Scottish seats alongside its Leave supporting constituencies in parts of England. In the end, the policy remarkably managed to satisfy absolutely nobody. Whilst the ineffective Brexit policy didn’t particularly harm the party in remainer cities like London, where Jeremy Corbyn was relatively popular, it did so in Scotland, where the ex-leader was even more unpopular than in England. One YouGov poll showed Corbyn’s rating as -65, lower than Boris Johnson’s own poor rating of -45. The Scottish Labour Party’s own separate position of Remain was a last ditch effort to retain support which lacked credibility, when voters saw that the UK wide party was not taking a position on the question.

It seems incredibly unlikely, even to the most ardent rose festooned supporter, that Scottish Labour can make substantial gains in next year’s Holyrood elections. A recent poll put the party five points behind the Tories in third place, with the SNP surging on over 50% of the vote. Sadly for Labour’s supporters, it seems that the best they can hope for is to possibly beat the Tories into second. The poll was taken before Douglas Ross was parachuted into the Scots Tory leadership, replacing the rather stuffy Jackson Carlaw. Ross will remain a Westminster MP, meaning he will not be able to directly debate Nicola Sturgeon, giving an opportunity for Labour to shine in holding the First Minister to account. However, Ruth Davidson will be standing in for Ross in Holyrood, and will probably prove a more formidable foe for the SNP than Scottish Labour’s inept leader Richard Leonard.

Leonard is not the only unimpressive leader that has been at the helm in Holyrood. The semi-competent Johann Lamont took the crown in 2011, followed by the MP Jim Murphy (a warning for the Scottish Tories on having a Westminster based leader in a Scottish party), and then Kezia Dugdale. Dugdale, perhaps more notable for being the worst I’m A Celebrity contestant ever, handed over to Leonard in 2017. Leonard has had little to no impact on the party, with many voters struggling to identify him. In a Call Keir event, an ex-Labour voter told the new UK leader that ‘I couldn’t even tell you who the leader of the Scottish Labour Party was.’ For someone whose been in office since 2017, this is a damning indictment. After the 2019 defeat Leonard promised to carry out a ‘listening exercise.’ It’s difficult to listen when people don’t know who to talk to.

On Scottish Labour’s website, Leonard states that he is ‘campaigning to deliver’ Labour’s ideals ‘as First Minister for Scotland.’ However, he has failed to stand up and be heard in crucial moments. The ideals that he proffers are ill-defined. During the recent exams fiasco Leonard was barely visible. Indeed, that controversy has reminded the populace that there are many things on which the SNP can be challenged over, but are regularly let off scot-free, due to their opposition being weaker than Scottish football player’s adherence to lockdown rules. Nicola Sturgeon’s admirable political skills and effective communication style has made her handling of coronavirus appear far better than Boris Johnson’s, even when it has been relatively similar. The lack of challenge has made this all the easier. An even more recent poll -taken since Ross has been Tory leader- has shown that the controversies over student grades have had little impact on the SNP, with their lead being extended.

An effective leader could hold the SNP to account for things that are their responsibility, as Ruth Davidson did to some limited benefit for her party’s electoral fortunes. However, it seems unlikely that the Tories will ever beat the SNP and get into government in Edinburgh. Labour are the only party to have done it before. The problem is, where is the replacement for Leonard?

Repeated electoral disasters have stripped the party of many of its talented figures, and there seems to be little hope of some bright prospect suddenly turning the party around. Indeed, the party seems so disinterested that Leonard’s page on their website still reads that he is ‘working every day to get Jeremy Corbyn elected as Prime Minister.’ While this is obviously a petty moan, it doesn’t exactly show a party firing on all cylinders.

The UK party also has a role to play. Whilst it is too early to make a judgment on Starmer’s policy on Scotland, he has not been publicly involved in many discussions about the country. If the party is not going to try and replace Leonard, Starmer, a more capable politician, will need to take a more central role alongside Ian Murray, the party’s sole Scottish MP and member of the Shadow Cabinet, in attempting to make gains in Holyrood next year. Although the party may be resigned to a relatively poor result, the party needs to make a long-term significant effort in Scotland – or it will have nearly no chance of winning the next UK election. Sir Keir has spoken of ‘recognition’ and ‘visibility’ being issues for the party north of the border, however he doesn’t seem to view Leonard as part of that problem. A new leaked report from the Our Scottish Future think tank which warns that the party is ‘under peril’ under Leonard’s leadership may change his mind.

Getting rid of Leonard would obviously not fix all of Scottish Labour’s issues. `The party is in an existential crisis, with no clear place existing for it in the political scene. The party has failed to differentiate itself from the SNP in terms of policy, and failed to distinguish itself from the Conservatives in relation to its support of the Union.

Labour’s opposition to a second independence referendum is in many ways a sensible position – they don’t support independence, so why should they support the means to get there? Unfortunately this position is difficult to hold when Labour is unable to move the discussion onto other issues. The SNP enjoy conversation about independence as it means they can continually raise issues around unrepresentative Westminster governments who implement decisions that a majority of Scots don’t agree with – a legitimate problem. However, the weaknesses of the other parties mean that devolved issues like healthcare and education, which haven’t done particularly well under SNP rule, are neglected as they can dominate the conversation.

One of the major problems Labour faces is being viewed as no different from the Scottish Conservatives, unwilling to let Scotland control their own affairs and full of old fashioned Unionists. If the party wants to differentiate itself, it needs to put forward radical policy proposals in areas where the SNP have failed and have the calibre of politician in the party who can deliver them to the public in a memorable fashion. If there is one thing that coronavirus has demonstrated, it is the amount of decision making power that devolution gives the Scottish Government. That offers exciting opportunities for Labour to harness these powers to create an ambitious, targeted policy platform which appeals to their core voters and attracts back the voters who have moved to the SNP but aren’t necessarily independence supporters, of which there are many.

The party will not be suddenly revitalised by the time of next year’s elections and will hope that it can avoid losing even more seats. Leonard’s ineffective leadership will perhaps come to an end soon, and this will be welcomed by many. Yet, there is no heir apparent. Inspiration and a new direction is needed fast, or supporters of independence may well be cheering soon.

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Rudderless, and pushed to the fringes by the SNP, can the Scottish Labour Party ever be revived?