Back from the Brink? Prospects for Scottish Labour

When Scottish Labour gathered for its spring conference in Perth twelve months ago, the party seemed to be heading for disaster. Its standing in polls of vote intentions for Scottish Parliament elections averaged just 16%, while its reading on vote intentions for a Westminster election were, at 14%, even slightly worse. The party was seemingly haemorrhaging support amongst unionist voters to a  Conservative party that appeared more confident in its defence of the Union.  Of course, neither kind of election was expected to happen anytime soon. But there were local elections in the offing the following May in which the party was due to defend what, by what at that point at least, appeared to be the high watermark of having been neck and neck with the SNP in the 2012 local elections.

Yet in the event the contest in May last year proved to be not quite so bloody for the party after all. True, it lost overall control of Glasgow, along with North Lanarkshire and West Dunbartonshire, and trailed the Conservatives as well as the SNP in the Scotland-wide popular vote. But at 20% the party’s share of the first preference vote was well up on what might have been anticipated from the polls two months earlier. Scottish Labour was down but not out.

In the meantime, of course, the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, had made the fateful decision to instigate an early UK general election. Once again, Scottish Labour trailed the Conservatives. But the party did have the consolation that, at 27%, its share of the Scotland-wide vote was up three points on its disastrous performance two years previously, as well as four points on its share of the constituency vote in the 2016 Holyrood election. Just as importantly, the party now had six newly-minted Scottish MPs to add to the solitary survivor of the 2015 disaster, Ian Murray, while a host of other SNP-held seats were now potentially within its sights.

Thus, the ship that Richard Leonard inherited from Kezia Dugdale as leader in November was a rather more seaworthy state than the badly leaking vessel that Ms Dugdale had inherited from Jim Murphy two years previously. The party’s conference this weekend in Dundee now gives him his first major opportunity as leader to show that he can pilot Scottish Labour towards rather more substantial electoral success.

Labour’s revival last June rested on a measure of success in winning over younger voters from the SNP. According to the British Election Study internet panel, Labour’s share of the vote in Scotland increased on 2015 by eight points to 34% amongst the under 45s, while it fell back slightly (by two points to 23%) amongst older voters – a mild version of the pro-Corbyn ‘youthquake’ that was in evidence in England and Wales. Meanwhile, around one in six of those who voted SNP in 2015 switched to Labour, thereby enabling the party to overcome the fact that as many as one in four of its much-diminished band of supporters in 2015 had switched to the Conservatives.

One more or less inevitable consequence of this pattern is that Labour gained ground amongst those who voted Yes in in the independence referendum in September 2014, while it lost support amongst those who voted No. As a result, the party still finds itself straddling two horses on the constitutional question. According to the most recent YouGov poll, for example, nearly one in four of those who currently say they would vote Labour also say that they would vote in favour of independence. In the case of the Conservatives, the equivalent figure was zero. Keeping both Yes and No supporters on side proved to be a very considerable challenge for Mr Leonard’s predecessors, and it remains to be seen whether he can be any more successful.

At the same time, like every other party leader, Mr Leonard will have to manage the division about Brexit that exists within his party. It appears that the EU is not an institution for which he has much enthusiasm. But like his UK party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, Mr Leonard has to be mindful of the fact that a clear majority of his party’s supporters (some 70%) voted to Remain.

Doubtless, part of Mr Leonard’s strategy will be to try and draw voters’ attention away from constitutional questions such as the EU and Scottish independence and towards what he clearly regards as the unacceptable level of inequality in Scotland. Here his legacy may offer some hope. Winning over younger voters from the SNP while losing them to the Conservatives helped ensure that the party’s vote tilted decidedly leftwards last June. According to the British Election Study panel, the party’s vote increased last June by nine points to 38% amongst those who can be classified as being on the left, while it fell by eight points (to just seven points), amongst those on the right. Mr Leonard needs to persuade them that his vision of a more equal Scotland is one that he is capable of delivering.

So far at least his party has done little more than tread water under his leadership – much as has been the party’s position in polls across the UK as a whole in recent months. In the three most recent Scottish polls of Westminster vote intentions, all conducted in December and January, Labour has averaged 28%, little different from its tally in June. Meanwhile, the party’s share in polls of vote intentions for the Scottish Parliament constituency vote is, at 25%, a little lower. Still, thanks to a slight easing in Conservative support, standing still has already proven enough for the party to be in competition once more for the mantle of Scotland’s second most popular party.

But where Mr Leonard’s leadership to date is undoubtedly open to criticism is that he remains a little known figure amongst the general public. When YouGov recently asked voters whether he was doing well or badly as Scottish Labour leader, no less than 60% said that they simply did not know. That is a figure that he certainly needs to reduce quickly.


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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.