The decline of Scottish Labour

Labour 1-1492333

Things are changing dramatically in Scotland. Our political landscape and the very nature of Scottish life could soon be changed irrevocably following the upcoming independence referendum.

Despite this, Scotland remains a nation of tradition; a nation of Burns, of saltires, and of embarrassing tartan trousers. One tradition, however, that does seem to be under threat – and perhaps more so than any other – is that old bastion of Scottish politics: the Scottish Labour party.

Their defeat in the 2011 Scottish Parliament election came as a crushing blow; their early lead in the polls falling away in earnest as the public became increasingly aware of their lacklustre leadership and clear lack of organisational vigour.

Scotland turned away for a second time from a party that had previously held omnipotence over Scottish politics and proved that the 2007 vote had been far from a fluke. Labour then suffered a similarly disappointing result at local level, winning just 394 council seats to the SNP’s 424.

So what brought about this miserable turnaround in fortunes? Dr Eric Shaw, an expert in the Scottish Labour party and co-author of The Strange Death of Labour Scotland, thinks that one of the most important factors may be Labour’s struggle to create a divergent set of proposals to offer the Scottish electorate.

“Labour has different strategic dilemmas in Scotland than it does in Westminster,” said Dr Shaw. “In Westminster, there is a reasonably clear divide between Labour and the Conservatives and they clearly differ on a range of issues.

“The problem for Scottish Labour is, that with the obvious exception of constitutional matters, there’s very little divide between them and the SNP. If you look at healthcare or education, it probably doesn’t make a lot of difference whether you have Labour or the SNP in power.”

This is perhaps most evident in the Labour party’s belated backing of several SNP policies in the lead up to the 2011 election, such as opposition to tuition fees and the council tax freeze.

This left the SNP in a very favourable position as it meant that voters were left to cast their vote largely on the back of individual personalities. Say what you will about Alex Salmond but there are few in the Labour party who can generate headlines with quite such brazen nonchalance.

This issue of personnel is one that extends to the very top of the Scottish Labour party and it should be noted that Johann Lamont and her party-leader predecessor Iain Gray – the current leadership team – are the same pairing who oversaw their party fall to historic lows at the last election.

The final and perhaps most damning assessment of the party is that their relevance is simply slipping away in a time of social change and the weakening of traditional class identities. Throughout Western Europe, large-scale party dealignment has seen a fall in party loyalty.

In these circumstances, social democratic parties have lost out significantly, mainly to parties of the radical right. In the case of Scotland, however, the party picking up the slack appears to be the SNP.

Scotland’s political landscape has unquestionably changed radically over the last decade, while Scottish Labour has remained practically inert. Regardless of the outcome of the independence referendum, many are predicting that the SNP will win the next election, subjecting Labour to yet more time on the opposition benches.

That would be disastrous for a party already scrambling to remain relevant. Scottish Labour must find a new mission and a new purpose, one profoundly Scottish at its core and drawing on the best days of Scottish social democracy.


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