Can Scottish Labour Deliver for Jeremy Corbyn?

Not so long ago, what happened in Scotland appeared immaterial to the outcome of a UK general election. The country was full of safe Labour seats that seemed unlikely to change hands, while the Conservatives appeared unable to do much more than secure the odd crumb.  The prospects for a change in the tenancy of 10 Downing St. depended, it seemed, on the outcome south of the border.

Those days are over. Although the Conservatives are still only competitive in a minority of Scottish seats, the thirteen they secured in 2017 were crucial to Theresa May’s ability to stay in office. Meanwhile, no less than 29 constituencies are competitive between Labour and the SNP (that is, the winner enjoys no more than a ten-point lead over the other).  Hanging on to what his party currently tenuously holds while making significant gains from the SNP could well be crucial to Jeremy Corbyn’s chances of becoming Prime Minister.

Yet there is little sign of Scottish Labour – whose spring conference takes place this weekend in Dundee – making much progress. In the 2017 UK general election the party won 27% of the vote, representing a modest improvement on the post-1918 record low of 24% to which it crashed in 2015. A plethora of polls last autumn on average put the party on just 25%, enough of a drop potentially to imperil a number of the seats that the party currently holds.

But since then it seems that things have got worse. In a mega GB poll conducted by YouGov last month, Labour was credited with just 20% of the vote in Scotland and the suggestion that it would lose five of the seven seats that it currently holds. Things are not much better in a Scotland only poll conducted in the last week by Panelbase for the Wings over Scotland website. That puts the party on just 22%, its lowest rating in any poll of Westminster vote intentions since the 2017 general election. Moreover, Scottish Labour can hardly blame this latest poor rating on the recently formed breakaway Independent Group of MPs, who register just 2% in the latest Scottish poll.

The news is little better for Labour in polling of vote intentions for a Scottish Parliament election. During the autumn, the party was stuck on average at the 23% it recorded on the constituency vote in the 2016 Scottish Parliament election, although the 22% it was securing on the regional vote was three points up on its performance three years ago. However, the latest Panelbase poll for Wings puts the party down at 19% on both ballots. With the current Holyrood term now already past its half-way point, there is little sign that Scottish Labour are set to recover the position of the largest opposition party in the parliamentary chamber, let alone be a serious competitor for office once more.

The apparent recent fall in Scottish Labour support is not necessarily the fault of the party’s leader, Richard Leonard. It mirrors a drop in the party’s support across the UK as a whole in recent weeks. But it can hardly be said that Mr Leonard brings to the table a personal popularity that helps to insulate his party when cold winds blow from across the border. In the most recent poll of leader popularity, conducted by Survation last autumn, as many as 37% said that they did not know whether they had a favourable view of him or not.  The equivalent figure for Kezia Dugdale after she had been leader for a year was just 17%. More voters are able to express a view about Willie Rennie or Patrick Harvie, both leaders of much smaller parties than Labour, than are willing to offer an opinion about Mr Leonard.  Meanwhile, this week’s Wings over Scotland poll suggests that only two in five Scots are able to identify Mr Leonard as Labour’s Scottish leader. It seems difficult to see how Labour is going to be able to reverse its decline north of the border if its leader makes very little impression – one way or the other – on the general public.

There are, of course, more deep-seated potential difficulties too. Much of the party’s fall from grace in 2015 was the result of losing to the SNP the support of those of its previous voters who had voted Yes in the 2014 independence referendum. Yet the constitutional question is still potentially a divisive one for the party. According to a Panelbase poll in December, no less than one in three of those who voted Labour in 2017 would vote Yes in a second independence referendum. That leaves the party having to bridge the constitutional divide in a way that the Conservatives, very few of whose supporters back independence, do not.  Yet Labour has reportedly still not made much progress in advancing its idea that the answer to the constitutional debate is that the UK should embrace federalism.

Meanwhile, there is also the potentially divisive issue of Brexit, and in particular Labour’s stance on the question of whether there should be another referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. Richard Leonard appears to share Jeremy Corbyn’s apparent reluctance to embrace unreservedly the idea that such a ballot should be held irrespective of whatever conclusion the Brexit process eventually reaches. Yet, like Labour supporters elsewhere, it appears (according to the same Panelbase poll from last December) that around three in five Labour voters (63%) back the idea of another ballot. Meanwhile, in contrast to the position south of the border, the party faces significant competition for the Remain vote (relatively large as it is in Scotland). Less than three in ten of those who voted Remain in 2016 back Labour north of the border, compared with more than two in five across Britain as a whole. Whatever doubts there might be about the electoral wisdom of Labour backing a second EU referendum in parts of England, the case for caution would seem to be less pressing north of the border.  But then, of course, Brexit is an issue on which many a politician has strong views, irrespective of what the polls say.

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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.