Scottish Labour begins its election post-mortem

Tomorrow is the Scottish elections, and the latest poll shows the SNP with a strong lead over Labour. The party has fought one of the most disastrous election campaigns in British memory. So, after the landslide, will Scottish Labour wake up to the need for renewal?
Gerry Hassan
4 May 2011

The Scottish Labour Party is - whatever you think of it - one of the great defining institutions of 20th century Scotland. It has contributed significantly to the public life, ideas and personalities of our nation. And it is in serious trouble.

It has fought one of the most disastrous election campaigns in recent memory anywhere in the UK, although not quite on the same level of Labour’s self-destruction in 1983. The latest poll by TNS-BMRB for STV today shows the SNP lead rising to 18% on the constituency vote and 13% on the regional vote, a shift from their previous poll on March 28th of a Labour lead of one percent on the first, and tied on the second.

SNP: 45% 37% (+8%)
Lab: 27% 38% (-11%)
Con: 15% 15% (=)
Lib: 10% 7% (+3%)

Oth:  3% 3% (=)

SNP: 38% 35% (+3%)
Lab: 25% 35% (-10%)
Con: 16% 14% (+2%)
Lib:  9% 8% (+1%)
Grn: 8% 5% (+3%)

Oth: 4% 3% (+1%)

This is according to Bernard Ponsonby, STV Political Editor, ‘a disaster for the Labour Party’. The above would produce in parliamentary seats 61 SNP (+14), 33 Lab (-13), 18 Tory (+1), Lib 9 (-7), Greens 8 (+6). Any result anywhere near this would shake Scottish politics to its foundations; it would for example result in a pro-independence referendum majority. 

Something has gone wrong in Scottish Labour, so wrong that the election post-mortem has already begun on ‘Labour Uncut’ with a thoughtful, illuminating piece by Calum Wright. What is persuasive and noteworthy, apart from the timing, is that Wright makes the link between the strategic misunderstandings of Scottish Labour and its inaccurate reading of Scottish politics, and its tactical, short-term mistakes in this campaign. This is the sort of basic revisionism which Scottish Labour is going to try to avoid from what looks like their inevitable defeat on Thursday.

Wright calls Labour’s campaign, ‘uninspiring, ill-conceived and unsuccessful’. He then goes on to identify several areas in which the campaign has failed: the anti-Tory dimension, approach towards the Nationalists, issue of distinctiveness, lack of realism, and leadership factor. 

Take the Nationalists first. Wright concedes that:

… the SNP has, of course, continuously positioned itself as the defender of Scotland, proclaiming that they will oppose or mitigate the “Westminster imposed cuts”.  The SNP’s slogan is “A Scottish government working for Scotland”, and this appeal to nationalism is arguably more effective than Labour’s politically partisan approach.

Instead, Labour have banged on about the return of the Tory bogeyman, Wright states: 

The problem with this strategy is first that the Tories are not the main opponents in these elections, the SNP are. Second, there is no clear evidence to show that the Scottish people believe that Labour rather than the SNP are best placed to “protect” Scotland from the Conservative-Lid Dem coalition.

Then we have the issue of distinctiveness. Labour decided it was a smart move to pinch most of the SNP’s popular policies: council tax freeze, no to tuition fees, etc. This has resulted in an election in which, says Wright, ‘Both the SNP and Labour are centre-left parties and to most their manifestos appear nigh on identical.’ This leaves the election determined on who stands up for Scotland, competence and leadership, all of which work to the SNP’s advantage. 

Labour have had the independence ‘scare’ strategy, of revealing that the Nats are nasty, scheming separatists diluted by constant use to the point of cliché by the Gordon Browns and Douglas Alexanders of the world, and by the SNP’s Blairite strategy of hiving off independence into a separate referendum vote. Wright comments that Labour’s approach on this ‘is patronising, deceptive and reveals a fundamental lack of vision.’   

All of this makes leadership even more pronounced in this campaign. Any kind of Scottish Labour campaign would have hit trouble in the current climate. Scottish Labour’s campaign and leader have made a difficult position into a self-destructive one. Gray may be ‘a man lacking conviction, unable to defend or even express his policies, onto the nation’s psyche’ but what is more important is the state of the party, ‘a poorly managed party, more interested in focus group issues than in constructing a plan for the future of Scotland.’ 

What is revealing in this piece is the scale of comprehensive demolition in which it engages on the sacred totems of Scottish Labour; that the Nats are black and white villains, the Tories the bad bogeyman, and Labour despite its policy, ideas and resource scarcity, uniquely placed to defend and articulate the interests of Scotland.

In concluding, Wright remarks that Scottish Labour ‘reverted to the easy option’ of attacking Tories and SNP ‘without producing a coherent, costed and inspiring vision.’ This leads to a profound disjuncture between Scottish Labour and English Labour, which has been evident for decades, from the era of New Labour and before. English Labour post-2010, just like post-1983, has begun engaging in difficult debates about the nature of progressive politics, pluralism, the role of the state, rethinking public services and much more.

Scottish Labour has done none of this. It didn’t do any of these things post-1983, it didn’t do so with the invention of New Labour, and it didn’t do so after it lost to the SNP in 2007. Instead, it chose to tell itself a cosy, comforting story of itself as a unique party. It looks like reality is going to come back and smack it in the face on May 5th in the form of voter rejection. We will need to wait and see whether Scottish Labour finally wakes up and smells the coffee!

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