The fall of the Scottish Labour Party has been well documented as of late, especially by the right wing press, and the post-mortem has begun. Much soul searching is required if Labour is regain its presence north of Hadrian’s Wall, and the party may well have to evaluate some harsh realities.
The SNP swept to power in the most dramatic fashion on the back of a highly successful campaign, focusing on anti-austerity and greater devolution for Scotland. The statistics of this victory and the defeat of Labour are staggering. Labour lost an unprecedented 40 seats in Scotland, leaving Ian Murray of Edinburgh South as the sole remaining Scottish Labour representative at Westminster. The Scottish National Party received more than double the amount of votes than Labour, and increased their seats from six in 2015 to fifty-six in 2020. The sea change was nowhere more dramatic than Glasgow North East, where Labour’s fifth safest seat suffered a UK-record swing of 39% to the SNP. To compound the misery, Labour lost some of its heavyweights, such as former Scottish Labour party leader Jim Murphy, and Douglas Alexander, Labour's election co-ordinator in Scotland and Shadow Foreign Secretary. A catastrophe this great begs the question, what went wrong?
Put simply, a lot of things. The Scottish public clearly were not interested in seeing Labour, ‘in bed with the Tories,’ as Labour UK vice-chairman Mike Dugher described it. The party became too closely aligned with the Conservative Party during the Better Together campaign, with many suggesting that it was hard to distinguish between the two. In contrast, the SNP were seen as the party of the majority, with none of the SNP’s 56 newly elected MP’s going to Oxford or Cambridge. Ed Miliband’s declaration that he would rather see a united country under Tory rule than preside over the independence of Scotland did little to alleviate Scottish doubts.
The Scottish voters also saw the SNP as the only party who would campaign for issues that mattered most to them, namely the devolution of powers to Holyrood and opposition to Trident and austerity. With Labour promising only limited devolution to Scotland, supporting Trident, and not going nearly far enough on the issue of austerity to suit Scottish opinion, Labour were on an inevitable collision with the Scottish electorate. Not sensing the change in attitude that the Scottish electorate felt towards Westminster and adapting was a huge error that could haunt the party for years to come. This, combined with factors like Murphy’s outburst on general secretary of the Unite union Len McCluskey, the hangover of years of New Labour policies, the rise of Scottish nationalism, the opposition to right wing politics that has clearly taken a foothold in England under Nigel Farage, and the draconian cuts The Conservative Party will no doubt unleash north of the border mean that Labour support will be hard to come by.
Yet there is light at the end of the tunnel, and Labour must play the next few months absolutely perfectly if they are to become relevant in Scotland again, let alone become the dominant force they once were. The most important factor that Labour must address is the issue of the Scottish leadership. Labour could linger in the doldrums unless a strong, charismatic and respected leader emerges from the ashes. Jim Murphy’s links to the Better Together campaign tarred his reputation, and someone must emerge from his shadow. Johann Lamont put it perfectly when she said, ‘we need to elect a leader not on a short term contract, but a long term appointment for the long haul.’ Labour must select a leader who can carry the party up North for the foreseeable future, someone who will lead the party to the 2020 election and beyond, barring another calamitous election.
Once the leadership issue is resolved, some key questions must be tackled. First on the agenda is the issue of separation from the UK Labour Party. Many, like Andy Burnham, have suggested, ‘a clean break,’ which would liberate the Scottish Labour Party to drift further to the left, where most of the electorate sit. It would also allow the party to have independent views on Trident and austerity, as well as go a long way to assuaging the fears of the Scottish trade unions. This would then give Labour a firm grounding, and allow the party to think about its stance on Scottish independence should the issue arise again.
Scotland may have rejected Labour for a catalogue of reasons, but there still remains a core of Labour voters. If the current wave of nationalism were to cool, and a strong Labour leader emerged with trade union backing who was willing to tackle the tough questions, Labour could well be back on track. How the leadership contest is handled will be crucial to the Labour Party in Scotland, and indeed nationally, and the future of the Labour Party in Scotland may be decided in the next few critical months.
Ryan Maynes is a Young Fabain member