Scottish Labour’s Predicament

Scottish Labour are gathered this weekend in Perth in the hope of kick-starting a revival. The party certainly badly needs to do so.

The hole in which it finds itself now is as every bit as deep as the one into which it fell in May when it was all but wiped out in the UK general election.  In five polls of voting intentions for next year’s Scottish Parliament election conducted during the last two months, the party has averaged just 22% on the constituency vote and 21% on the list ballot – actually slightly below the 24% it managed to win in May. Both figures are well down on the party’s performance in the last Scottish Parliament election in 2011, when it secured 32% on the constituency vote and 25% on the list.

Indeed, with the SNP averaging no less than 53% on the constituency ballot, the polls point at the moment to as much as a 9 percentage point swing from Labour to the SNP since 2011 on that ballot.  If that swing were to occur uniformly across Scotland Labour would lose every last one of its constituency seats at Holyrood. The party would find itself in exactly the same position as the Conservatives did after the first Scottish Parliament election in 1999 – wholly reliant on the proportional list system to retain a presence in the Edinburgh legislature.

In part the party’s problem is that at the moment many voters appear unwilling to listen to what it has to say. According to YouGov only a quarter of Scots say they trust the party to tell the truth. Hardly anyone (on average, just 4%) who voted in last year’s referendum appears willing to contemplate voting for the party. Meanwhile, the party’s new leader, Kezia Dugdale, still has to make much of an impression on voters. In September, Panelbase found that no less than 43% were neither satisfied nor dissatisfied with her leadership, while another 21% said they Didn’t Know.  In other words, nearly two-thirds had no firm impression of her either way.  Meanwhile, more recently in October YouGov reported that 38% were unable to say whether she was doing well or badly (with the latter group outnumbering the former). Ms. Dugdale needs to use her first conference speech as leader to make voters begin to sit up and take notice of her.

At the same time Labour has so far made very little headway in persuading voters that the SNP’s record in office is less than might be desired. For example, YouGov report that no less than 55% think the SNP have handled education and schools well, while just 33% reckon they have done so badly.  The equivalent figures in the same poll for health show a more even balance of opinion (48% think it has been handled well, 43% badly) but this is still a relatively favourable balance of judgement for a government that has been in office for eight years.

Survation have painted much the same picture, other than that they find that the SNP’s record on health is regarded more favourably than that on education. According to their polling, no less than 51% say they are satisfied with the Scottish Government’s handling of health, while just 23% are dissatisfied. On education, the equivalent figures are 46% and 21% respectively.

The only black mark on the SNP’s record that the polls have identified so far is that according to Survation rather more are dissatisfied (37%) than satisfied (32%) with the SNP’s handling of policing. But it is doubtful that most voters will regard this as sufficient reason to contemplate defecting from the SNP. Labour needs to sow far more seeds of doubt in voters’ minds about the Scottish Government’s record if it is ever to climb out of the deep hole in which it finds itself.

Yet it seems that neither Ms Dugdale’s speech nor the debate about how Scotland’s devolved government has and should be run will be the centerpiece of the conference. Instead it now looks as though that position will be occupied by a divisive debate about Trident. That issue not only divides party members but also Labour’s diminished band of voters. According to YouGov 23% of Labour supporters want Trident scrapped, counterbalanced almost exactly by 24% who think it should replaced on a like for like basis – the remainder either want a less powerful replacement (36%) or do not know (16%). Focusing on subjects that divides both your members and your voters is not the most obvious path back to electoral recovery.

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About the author

John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, Senior Research Fellow at ScotCen and at 'UK in a Changing Europe', and Chief Commentator on the What Scotland Thinks website.