Scottish Labour and the Road to Recovery

18 Aug 2015


After a bitter and bloody battle there followed a rout; the almost complete annihilation of a battered and beleaguered force, once dominant but now nigh extinct. I'm speaking, not of a great battle from the campaigns of Julius Caesar or Napoleon, but of the catastrophe suffered by Scottish Labour at the 2015 general election.  

In 2010, when Gordon Brown was fighting to remain Prime Minister, the Labour Party in Scotland received a spectacular 42% of the popular vote, an increase of 2.5% from 2005. In 2015, Labour dropped to 24.3%, losing all but one of its 41 MPs. The question now for the newly elected Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale is whether she can improve the fortunes of a demoralised party that has suffered years of infighting, and beat a Scottish Nationalist Party currently polling at 62%?


Scottish Labour has been subject to consistent pummelling by the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) during recent months. In May, Michael Dugher, Labour MP for Barnsley East, was scathing towards his Scottish comrades. Interviewed by the New Statesman, Dugher remarked, "We totally fucked-up that referendum campaign", the public reaction to Labour's temporary alliance with the widely-hated Conservatives was too much for many progressive Scots. Dugher also criticised Labour’s Scottish MPs for their complacency, despairing that "we had a number of people who had not delivered a leaflet in decades". Deputy Leadership candidate Ben Bradshaw has added to the sea of derisory comments, highlighting the dismally low contact rate with voters in some Scottish constituencies; as bad as 0% during 2012 in one Glasgow constituency, compared with 75% in Bradshaw's own constituency of Exeter.


Again and again, Scottish Labour received warnings about the rising strength of the SNP. The nationalist's narrow victory in the 2007 Holyrood elections was viewed as a blip, rather than a serious indicator of something awry. Moreover, a second victory in 2011 was merely regarded as a protest against the policies of the still fresh Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government . Even when 44.7% of the electorate voted Yes in the Scottish independence referendum, there remained a widely held belief that come the general election Scottish voters would stay loyal to the Labour tribe.


Some commentators speculate that a Jeremy Corbyn victory in the Labour leadership election could do a great deal to improve Scottish Labour’s fortunes. They propose that the SNP's success is based on an anti-austerity platform replicated by Corbyn. However, whilst battling David Cameron in Westminster, the main party leadership will scarcely be relevant to the all-important 2016 Holyrood elections, during which time Labour will be tasked with defending 38 seats. New Scottish Labour Leader Kezia Dugdale has the daunting and decidedly unenviable task of restoring trust and confidence in her shattered party. However, as difficult as it may seem, her task is not impossible.


Like the Liberal Democrats, short-term plans must be adopted in alliance with a long-term restoration strategy. Reinvigorating grassroots members by injecting fresh ideas and planning events would go a long way to restoring pride in the party. More active meetings with an attitude of respect and openness to new members, supporters, affiliates and their ideas would help prevent CLPs from being dominated by small, insular groups. A stronger party narrative that is distinct from the Tories’ ideological obsession with cuts, but more coherent and open than that of the SNP, would go a long way to re-establishing Labour as a credible alternative. Challenging both Westminster and Holyrood governments is vital for Scottish Labour, but criticism must be allied with credible policies.

More importantly, however, Labour's chances will improve markedly if the party re-appropriates a message of hope from the SNP. Agree or disagree with the idea of Scottish independence, the surprisingly successful 'Yes Scotland' campaign was imbued with the notion of a hopeful utopia. A Unionist message of hope could extoll the idea of a strong Scotland in a progressive, inclusive United Kingdom. Such a concept could prompt a wealth of policies that prize solidarity above separation; sweeping aside the divisive nationalism of the SNP in Scotland and the Conservatives in England.


If Kezia Dugdale and her team can regain a message of hope they can truly start to rebuild the once mighty power of Scottish Labour. The same TNS poll that placed the SNP’s popular support at 62% also provided a glimmer of hope for Scottish Labour. Indeed, only a third of those polled said that they view the record of the SNP in government in a positive light. Thus, as the head of TNS Scotland Tom Costley said, "Opposition parties may find voters ready to listen to their alternative policies".


To ignore yet another chance at redemption would be a disaster for Scottish Labour. Kezia Dugdale has proven her abilities during her time an MSP. Many hope those abilities will shine through; she may be the party’s final chance at recovery.


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