Labour Down

The Labour Party since Devolution

Published: 29 October 2019

Eric Shaw from University of Stirling, evaluates the Labour Party's record in Scotland since devolution and asks to what extent is their Scottish demise a consequence of the logic of devolution in our latest instalment of our devolution at 20 series.

In the famous words of Lord George Robertson, former Labour Defence Secretary and General Secretary of NATO, devolution was supposed to “kill nationalism stone dead.” In the early years of the Scottish Parliament, he appeared correct: devolution entrenched Labour rule in Scotland, with the party in government with the Liberal Democrats from 1999 to 2007. But since then, it has been downhill all the way, with a succession of dismal election results.  Labour secured just 22.6% of the vote in the 2016 Holyrood elections, 27.1% in the  2017 Westminster elections (remarkably spun as a positive result), before hitting rock bottom (it hopes) earlier this year with less than 10% of the total vote in the European Parliament elections, a result that failed to yield a single seat. From its long-held position as Scotland’s premier political force, Labour has been relegated to the humiliating status of 5th place, and is starring irrelevance hard in the face.  

Was Lord Robertson self-evidently incorrect? To what extent is Labour’s Scottish demise a consequence of the logic of devolution? 

Far from ‘killing nationalism stone dead’ by moving the principal arena of Scottish politics from Westminster to Holyrood, devolution has  promoted  a distinctive  Scottish political  sensibility: the sense that Scotland has its own identity, interests, values and priorities, that set it apart from the rest of the UK and require discrete and emphatic political expression.  The effect has been to make Scottish voters more receptive to the SNP’s message that, faced with the might of Westminster, Scotland needs an unambiguously and exclusively Scottish party to act as its champion; a party that will always an unerringly “stand up for Scotland”.

Notions of Scottish Labour’s sudden and precipitous fall can be exaggerated.  The concept of a ‘Labour Scotland’ was always something of a myth, and has become progressively more so.  But it has been a myth which has too often beguiled the Scottish party. It fostered a sense of entitlement and custodianship, a belief that Scotland was – ideologically, socially and institutionally – ‘natural Labour territory’ (a belief apparently vindicated by a succession of electoral victories from 1983 onwards).  Whatever happened south of the border, Scotland was a rock-solid Labour fortress.

This myth, and the complacency it fed, was sustained by the distorting impact of the electoral system. In both Westminster and local elections Labour regularly captured in its central Lowland heartlands a very high proportion of seats, but on a distinct minority of votes. The introduction of forms of proportional representation for both Holyrood and then local authority elections, stripped away this illusion, affording a more accurate picture of the party’s electoral standing.

In truth, Labour’s roots in its Scottish ‘heartlands’ – the network of community and trade union organisations and norms which had bound its voters in ties of loyalty and allegiance – had long been weakening. This was not immediately obvious because enough voters were prepared to flock behind it as the best way of  ‘keeping the Tories out.’  But in the early years of the new millennium, this ceased to be so, primarily due to the mounting challenge from an energetic, disciplined and adroitly led SNP that could credibly claim to represent a left-wing alternative to the Conservatives. The SNP’s adamant opposition to the Iraq War in contract to Scottish Labour’s equivocations further enhanced its credibility. A faltering Labour party was then dealt a major blow by the 2011 Holyrood election results and the independence referendum which followed. Over a three-year period, many of its voters desert to the Nationalists; not, so far, to return.

Was all this inevitable? Did devolution release a dynamic which was bound to benefit the forces of nationalism at Labour’s expense? Probably to some degree, but the party has contributed to its own decay.  All parties, to survive and flourish, must be able to respond and adapt to movements in the climate of opinion, to sense new ways of thinking and to respond to shifting value constellations. But Scottish Labour seems to lack this capacity. Its most notable mistake in government in Holyrood was its failure to differentiate itself from New Labour in London and to carve out its own separate ideological identity. 

Ironically, in terms of tangible policy, it often did precisely this, most notably in eschewing the wasteful and destabilising New Labour policies such as NHS   marketisation and privatisation, and also in its refusal to fragment the system of secondary education to promote choice and competition. Instead, it stood by traditional social democratic policies. However, rather than trumpeting these differences it tended to fudge and minimise them in the service of party cohesion and in deference to the leadership in London.  As a result, it played into the hands of an SNP determined to portray Scottish Labour as a ‘branch office’ of the UK party. The fact the party failed to articulate widespread Scottish opposition to Iraq as a result of pressure from the Blair government further reinforced this perception.

Scottish Labour’s belated response to its ejection from government in Holyrood was to secure from London further delegation of powers over organisation, management and policy-making, with the result that it  is now effectively an autonomous party.  Whilst sensible in themselves, these moves did little to reverse its sinking fortunes: most voters know little and care less about the internal politics of political parties.  

Meanwhile, the Corbynista left of the Scottish party had its own diagnosis of the crumbling of  its electoral support: it was too right-wing, out-of-line with Scotland’s radical spirt and political culture and insufficiently feisty in its fight against austerity. In consequence, it had been outmanoeuvred by the SNP.  In 2017, after years of leadership by so-called “centrist” politicians, the Corbyn-sympathising MSP Richard Leonard was elected to the party leadership. But there was no revival in party fortunes, in large part because the Corbynista analysis was shallow, simplistic and unsupported by any hard evidence.  

Instead, the Scottish party has suffered (again) from being seen as under the shadow of the UK party, with Leonard having allowed himself to be depicted –and hence discredited –as a proxy for Corbyn. Leonard also suffers from a chronic lack of visibility, especially in comparison to Nicola Sturgeon and Ruth Davidson.  His failure to adequately represent strong Remainer sympathisers in Scotland coupled with his confused message over a second independence referendum have not helped Labour’s cause.

But Scottish – or British – circumstances alone cannot explain Scottish Labour’s crisis.   After all, social democratic parties are struggling everywhere, haemorrhaging votes to both populists of the radical right and to Green and more radical left parties: most strikingly, in the massive setbacks suffered recently by the French Socialists and the German Social Democratic party.  Corbyn’s Labour briefly seemed an exception, but hopes raised by its  impressive 2017 performance are dissipating as it tumbles in the polls.

However, while it may be unfair to place blame entirely at Labour’s door, over the last 20 years it has consistently failed to play its hand with skill, acumen or creativity.  It has made no real effort to inspire people with its own vision of Scotland, or to propagate an idealism and sense of purpose that could combat the appeal of Scottish nationalism.  

And there is scant evidence that the present leadership, any more than its predecessors, see the need for this.  Convinced of the Corbynista doctrine that a natural majority for socialist policies already exists in the UK, their sole aim is to convince voters of their  determination to pursue these policies. Given the opportunity to vote for a truly left-wing party, surely people will flock back to Scottish Labour’s banner? Polls at the moment,  which show Scottish Labour vying with the Conservative and Unionist Party and the resurgent Liberal Democrats for a distant second behind the all-conquering SNP, suggest this is not the case.

So, what is Scottish Labour to do if it is to revive itself? Two things appear self-evident: firstly, it must work to improve the visibility and popularity of Richard Leonard and devise a distinct message for Scotland. Secondly, and more importantly, it must dispense with the myths and illusions it has nurtured and engage in some honest and unsparing analysis of its plight, the precondition of any political revival.