Can Scottish Labour strike back?
This wasn’t supposed to happen. The Scottish National Party (SNP) has been written off so many times in its history. The party's current electoral dominance in Scotland, to many, appears unfathomable.
Back in the 1960s, the party was derided as a lunatic fringe incapable of winning even a single Scottish parliamentary seat. The party had only ever held one seat, back in 1945, and even then it was only for a few brief months. Scottish Labour, so dominant across urban Scotland, was especially dismissive, and complacent. Then, in 1967, Winnie Ewing burst onto the national stage in Hamilton by claiming a stunning by-election victory and overturning a gargantuan Labour majority. Labour called it a one-off fluke.
In the 1970s, the SNP was still dismissed as a minor force, destined to obscurity and confined to the political margins. Then, in 1974, the party achieved its best ever electoral result, winning 11 MPs and considerable influence in a delicately hung parliament. Labour insisted that the SNP had hit its electoral ceiling; that it was only a matter of time before the party collapsed.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, with the Scottish Parliament having been re-convened (by Ewing herself) in Edinburgh after nearly 300 years, Labour was still seen as the natural party of power. Nothing could – or would – break Labour’s stranglehold over Scottish politics. Then Defence Secretary George Robertson, later NATO Secretary General, even claimed that devolution would ‘kill Scottish nationalism stone dead’. Scotland was Labour and Labour was Scotland. And then, in 2007, Alex Salmond won an historic breakthrough, narrowly beating Labour by one seat nationwide and sealing a minority SNP government in Holyrood.
Labour was in shock. But this exceptional result was nothing to be unduly concerned about, it was claimed; the nationalist tide would soon ebb away. Labour expected that, without much effort or introspection, it would return to power in 2011. Instead, the party was dealt a hammer blow. Salmond led the SNP to another astonishing victory, this time an unprecedented parliamentary majority under a proportional voting system. A parliament explicitly designed to degrade Scottish nationalism and prevent the SNP from ever winning power was now in the hands of the very people it had been built to defeat.
Many assumed that this was the high point; after so many years in office, the SNP bubble just had to burst. Following the SNP’s defeat in the 2014 independence referendum, the commentariat – and ever-complacent Scottish Labour Party – assumed that the nationalists would soon lose support to the Unionists. But the Scottish people still liked what they saw from a competent, progressive Scottish government that had restored the principle of free education to Scotland’s universities, abolished the unjust tax on ill-health known as the prescription charge, invested record amounts in the Scottish NHS, increased police numbers, reduced crime to a 40-year low, greatly increased Scotland’s trade with emerging markets, and invested heavily in the environmentally-friendly renewable energies of the future. Ergo, in May, the Scottish people handed the SNP another victory, one even more overwhelming than those previously witnessed. The party won a staggering 56 out of 59 Scottish seats, overturning huge, decades-old Labour majorities in their formerly impregnable heartlands and turning Scotland Yellow. And yet, somehow, things are still looking up for Nicola Sturgeon’s party.
A recent poll conducted by TNS has suggested that a staggering 62% of voters in Scotland will back the SNP at next May’s Holyrood elections, which would give the SNP an increased overall majority against all the odds. According to TNS, Labour will secure a miserable 19%, losing all of their constituency seats, the Conservatives 15%, and the Liberal Democrats 3%. Meanwhile, the Greens could pick up 10 MSPs with 10% of the proportional party list vote. The poll also revealed that an overwhelming 80% of Scots under the age of 35 are SNP supporters. Only 6% intend to vote Labour. Scottish Labour is, quite literally, dying out.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. Conventional psepsological wisdom dictates that governments always become unpopular soon enough. And yet the SNP, seemingly unaware of the laws of politics, continue to defy electoral gravity. Very rarely in established liberal democracies do parties ever win half of the votes cast. If the SNP secured the backing of over 60% of Scots next May (given the current disarray of the Unionist parties in Scotland, few would bet against it), it would be an utterly unprecedented result in the democratic history of the British Isles and would make Labour’s former dominance look rather feeble.
Many outside of Scotland – and those within its Unionist parties – tend to interpret the SNP’s relentless march from victory to victory in one of two equally spurious ways: either as an aberration soon to be corrected, or the result of an entire nation gone mad, seduced and duped by the propaganda of Sturgeon et al. In other words, either the electorate is stupid or the SNP is wicked (or both). The truth, of course, as ever, is rather more complex and less absurd.
The ostrich that is Scottish Labour, its head still firmly planted in the political sand, cannot quite accept that the rise of the SNP is both sustained and legitimate. Scotland has not been deceived. It knows exactly what it is voting for. Scotland is, broadly, a social democratic country, at least in intent if not in practice. Most Scots want a more equal society; such Burnsian, egalitarian logic is ingrained in our political culture – it’s in the water – and the SNP is currently the only party passionately articulating and competently implementing such a vision of a progressive, nuclear-free Scotland. Meanwhile, Scottish Labour’s rhetoric is confused, bitter and inconsistent.
For decades, Scottish Labour has waited for victory to fall into its lap. Even now, many within the party wait for the supposedly inevitable revival to begin. Surely, they think, remembering that old D-Ream tune from Labour’s ’97 campaign, things can only get better? Well, critics of the SNP have been predicting the party’s imminent demise for years – and its popularity has only risen. No political party has a divine right to win or, for that matter, to exist. Only if new leader Kezia Dugdale wrestles with the reality that things could get even worse for her party, might things begin to get better. Scottish Labour’s fight for survival is on.