Labour and Scotland | An Awkward Relationship
Scotland has often been the fortress for the Labour Party over recent decades during elections, having frequently topped its opponents in both seats and vote share. In 1987 for example, Labour secured 50 of the 72 seatsavailable in Scotland and had 42.4% of the vote. Under Tony Blair and New Labour, much of Scotland voted for the party again, with 56 seats being secured in 1997 alongside an incredible 46.5% of the vote. It is undeniable that Scotland was the safe haven Labour enjoyed even in times of darkness, particularly during the Thatcher years. However, recent results have not looked favourably on Labour in Scotland, having been relegated to the third largest party in 2017 when the Conservative Party made important gains under Ruth Davidson, becoming the second-largest partyin Scotland for the first time since 1992. Whilst 2017 was an improvement from a disastrous election in 2015, it is still indicative of a party that has lost the love of much of Scotland.
There have been numerous reasons put forward to explain why Labour perform so badly now in Scotland. Gerry Hassan, the co-author of The Strange Death of Labour Scotland, believes that there is “profound anger”towards Labour and that traditional hubs of support, such as from the Catholic community, had not been as effective anymore. The Iraq War had also been a key reason for a decline in support, with many feeling disillusioned over the Labour government’s intervention in removing Sadaam Hussein under the false pretence of finding Weapons of Mass Destruction. This belief was voiced by Lord Falconer, a close friend and ally of Tony Blair who argued that Iraq “damaged Labour right throughout Scotland and England…”and fuelled the growing separation between Labour and Scotland. The rise of the SNP cannot be forgotten either, with the party taking advantage of wavering support for Labour in 2007 and was able to become the largest party in Scotland, thus ending Labour’s control of Holyrood that they enjoyed since 1999. Independence is perhaps the biggest point of division, with Labour deciding to join with the Conservatives in campaigning to stay in the Union during the referendum in 2014 as part of the group called Better Together, provoking a negative reaction among many supporters because it was ignoring the damage the Conservatives had done to Scotland during its time in power.
In short, the electoral stronghold that Labour hoped Scotland would be throughout the years has failed miserably. Even today, Labour continues to be at the fringe of politics in Scotland, and there are even some divisions over Brexit. Former Labour leader in Scotland Kezia Dugdale recently criticisedcurrent leader Richard Leonard over the treatment of Catherine Stihler and David Martin, both MEPs who want to support a second referendum on EU membership, in the run-up to the party conference on Friday. It is clear that something needs to be done to revitalise popularity in Scotland, otherwise Labour may never take control of politics there ever again. Perhaps one solution is to gamble on backing another referendum on EU membership, especially considering the huge amount of support for Remain that was apparent in Scotland in 2016. Even more controversial is the prospect of a second referendum on Scottish independence, with Labour currently opposinganother one in its next manifesto. However, its idea of federalism as a way of resolving the constitutional divide has made a questionable impact and its solution isn’t shared by many especially in such a polarising time in politics. And maybe changing leaders is an idea to consider, as Richard Leonard has failed to make a significant impact thus far in his tenure as leader of Labour in Scotland. In a recent pollregarding leader popularity, 37% of respondents said they didn’t know whether they had a favourable view of him or not, suggesting that many people aren’t even aware of him and his work.
Labour needs Scotland if it wants to do well in future, and it should therefore make it its mission to win the hearts and minds of many former Labour voters there if it wants to stand a chance of coming back to government.