Scottish Labour – Challenges and Opportunities

One of the signs of spring north of the border is the advent of the Scottish party conference season. The pandemic, of course, disrupted all of that, but today sees the opening of the first of three in-person Scottish party conferences, the first such clutch of gatherings since lockdown restrictions were initially introduced almost exactly two years ago. Scottish Labour gather in Glasgow this weekend, and will be followed over the next two weeks by the Greens (as a hybrid event after a similar one last autumn) and the Conservatives. However, having held two online conferences last autumn, the SNP are biding their time, while the Liberal Democrats are not meeting until the autumn.

This spring’s conferences occur just weeks before Scotland goes to the polls once again – on May 5th for all of Scotland’s 32 local authorities. The elections will be held using the Single Transferable Vote form of proportional representation. Consequently, most councils will remain ‘hung’, and who eventually holds power in local government will depend as much on post-election bargaining as it does on whatever emerges from the ballot box. Nevertheless, the outcome of these local elections will matter – for they could well witness a crucial battle between Labour and the Conservatives for the position of Scotland’s second largest party.

Once the dominant party of Scottish politics, Labour has been in third place behind the Conservatives at every election since the Scottish Parliament contest of 2016. At the last local elections in 2017, Labour won just 20% of the first preference vote, a performance that saw them trailing the Conservatives (on 25%) by five percentage points. And although the party was only narrowly behind the Conservatives on the constituency ballot of last year’s Holyrood election, it was again five points behind on the regional list vote.

However, the ‘partygate’ allegations that have dogged the Prime Minister since before Christmas have cost the Conservatives significant support in the Britain-wide polls (a loss that, so far at least, has not been reversed in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine), and the two polls that have been conducted north of the border since the controversy first arose suggest that the Scottish Conservatives have not been immune from its impact. Both Opinium just before Christmas and Savanta ComRes in January reported that the Conservatives were now clearly trailing Labour. As a result, the local elections could present Labour with an opportunity to regain the second-place the party lost six years ago – and thus potentially challenge the Conservatives’ role as the principal political voice of the pro-Union argument at a time when the Scottish Government will be endeavouring to hold another independence referendum.

Not that it is clear that Labour are as yet the most popular party among those who are currently opposed to independence. According to Savanta ComRes, the Conservatives still command the backing of 41% of current No supporters on the Holyrood constituency vote and 39% of those on the list vote, whereas Labour stand at 32% and 28% respectively on the two ballots. Labour are ahead of the Conservatives overall on both ballots because they are the one pro-Union party that still has some success, albeit limited, in securing the support of those who would vote Yes in another independence referendum. One in ten of Yes supporters are willing to back Labour, whereas the Conservatives hardly get any support from that quarter at all.

However, this reminds us of the strategic dilemma that has confronted the party ever since the 2014 independence referendum. If it is ever to regain any of its former dominance of Scottish politics – and thus have any prospect of gaining the Scottish Westminster seats that the party will need to have much chance of winning a Commons overall majority – it needs not only to make progress in winning over No supporters, but also erode the SNP’s near monopoly of Yes support.

Ever since the SNP first came to power at Holyrood in 2007, Labour’s answer to this dilemma has been to back an expansion of devolution, and the party is now set to pursue that strategy once again with a promised report on ‘federalism’ from Gordon Brown.  Yet this document will arrive at a time when electoral politics in Scotland are polarised around the constitutional question to a greater extent than ever, and when there appears to be relatively little enthusiasm for ‘devo max’ (see here and here). While the party’s stance means that just 5% of current Yes supporters trust the party most to campaign for independence, it also still leaves it trailing the Conservatives by 55% to 20% among No supporters as the party best able to protect the Union. In truth, real progress for the party probably depends on the electoral agenda shifting on to issues such as health, education, and the challenges faced by the more vulnerable, where the party scores relatively highly –  but there is little sign of this happening so far.

The task of leading the party through this challenging terrain lies in the hands of Anas Sarwar, for whom this weekend’s conference will be his first chance to give a major speech in front of the Scottish party faithful. He is far from being unpopular. In their January poll, Savanta ComRes found that 27% have a favourable view of him, slightly more than the 26% who regard him unfavourably. Yet he is still a leader about whom many voters do not have a firm view one way or the other – nearly half either say they have neither a favourable nor an unfavourable opinion of him or that they don’t know. He is respected for his intelligence and for understanding ordinary people, but relatively few regard him as either ‘charismatic’ or ‘strong’. These numbers, which have changed little during Mr Sarwar’s first year in the role, suggest that he faces much the same difficulty as the party’s UK leader, Sir Keir Starmer in attracting voters’ attention. Yet that is what his party badly needs him to do.

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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.