In Scotland Labour begins to recover

By Frieda Park

The fact that there is good electoral news from Scotland makes a welcome change with the 2017 general election seeing the dominance of nationalism take a severe dent.

There was little expectation beforehand that Labour would make much headway, however it won back 6 seats, increasing its number of MPs to 7. Three of the newly elected MPs were supported by the Campaign for Socialism.

The Scottish National Party (SNP) expected some losses from their astonishing success at the last election when it won 56 out of 59 seats on the back of the failed independence referendum. However, it did not lose just a few seats it lost 21, reducing its tally to 36. In a further blow it lost two of its key figures at Westminster – Alex Salmond, former First Minister of Scotland and Angus Robertson, its deputy leader and leader in the House of Commons. In every single constituency the nationalists’ vote share went down, mainly in double digits. The biggest loss of vote share was 21.1% in Banff and Buchan which had been SNP since 1987, but was a Tory seat prior to that. Their smallest loss of vote share was 3.8% in Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk.

There are now 16 SNP MPs sitting on majorities of less than 2000 of which 9 are less than 1000, including 4 under 100. In Fife North East their majority is just 2. In 9 of these 16 seats Labour was placed second, with another being a close three-way marginal. In most of the others Labour could easily benefit from a further shift from the SNP overtaking the Tories to be in a winning position. There are undoubtedly seats beyond this number where the SNP is vulnerable and where Labour could win.

Unfortunately as well as good news there is also bad news from the election. The Conservative Party confirmed its position as the second party in Scotland increasing its tally of seats from 1 to 13. In every constituency apart from Orkney and Shetland, where it fell by 0.2%, its vote share increased mainly by double digit percentages. The biggest was Gordon where the Tories’ vote share increased by 29%. This was the seat that Alex Salmond lost and had previously been a Liberal Democrat (Lib Dem) seat. There and in some other seats, the Lib Dem vote collapsed, aiding the Tories.

SNP vote fell drastically – they lost nearly ½ a million votes, however, few of these votes seem to have gone to Labour. Only Labour and the Tories added votes, every other party lost votes. The Lib Dems and UKIP lost about 40,000 votes each and the Greens over 30,000.[1] Despite losing votes, the Lib Dems increased their number of seats from 1 to 4. In all 260,000 fewer people voted. It would be a fair guess that this group were largely SNP voters, accounting for half their losses. The Tories increased the number voting for them by 323,852, whereas Labour’s actual net gain was only 9,860.  Even if the Tories got the overwhelming bulk of the Lib Dem and UKIP votes, they still made a further gain of around 240,000 votes a figure which looks very much like the other half of the SNP’s lost votes. But how could this be? Why would SNP voters transfer their allegiance to the most strongly pro-unionist party?

Much was made during the campaign of disquiet at the SNP plans for another independence referendum, this was true even among some Yes voters weary of further division and diversion. There was also growing concern at the SNP’s failures in government as it focused on independence at the expense of what they were actually elected to do at Holyrood. However, this offers no explanation as to why the Tories should be the beneficiaries of this disillusionment. 

The seats won by the Tories were in rural or relatively wealthy constituencies and in a sense, therefore, they were returning to type. A proportion of the Tories gains here were people not very committed to the SNP, but who had voted nationalist in the past as a tactical vote against Labour. However, there was a good performance across the board by the Tories, not just in these seats. Although it does not fit with the propaganda that Scottish Nationalism is cuddly and inherently left-wing, there has always been a right-wing in the SNP and among its supporters. In every other respect, apart from the issue of independence, this section of voters might have found the transition to voting Tory easier than voting Labour which also opposed a second independence referendum. This on its own, however, would still not account for the number of votes that the Tories picked up.

Though disillusionment with endless referenda and a poorly performing government were part reason the SNP lost support the elephant in the room, unacknowledged before, during or even since the election was Brexit. Scotland voted to Remain by 62% to 38% and the SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, has used this to further her campaign for independence. She has been extremely voluble about Scotland being “dragged out of the European Union against its will”. This ignored the concerns of the many SNP supporters who voted Leave. If 25% of SNP supporters voted for Brexit, as some polls suggested, that could be 360,000 votes.[2] A proportion of these voters more than likely made up a chunk of the Tories additional 323,852 votes along with Lib Dem and UKIP voters.

In this light the Tory success begins to make sense and was similar to the successes it achieved in winning votes and seats in the Midlands and North of England, where it was seen to be the safest pair of hands to ensure Brexit. In more working-class constituencies these results challenge Labour in Scotland just as in England.

Other things helped the Tories. The divisions over independence had begun to push protestant unionists into the hands of the Tories even prior to this election and the charge that Corbyn supported the IRA - though it failed to take off other places - potentially did do some damage here. Ruth Davidson is an effective leader and has tried, with some success, to position the Scottish Tories as more one-nation and socially liberal than the party nationally. By contrast Labour’s Kezia Dugdale has never really grown into the job. Her presentation is humourless and often unconvincing, doggedly sticking to the anti-independence script during TV debates.

Labour’s recovery, though very welcome, was relatively modest. The biggest increase in its vote share was in the seat of its one sitting MP Ian Murray – 15.5%. No others got out of single figures and in 13 seats vote share actually declined. Sometimes seats were won because the Labour vote was up only a little and the Tories slashed the SNP vote. Rutherglen & Hamilton West was won by Labour with an increase of only 2.3% in vote share, whereas the SNP was down 15.5% and Tories up 12%.

The improvement in Labour’s fortunes appeared to happen late in the campaign and has been attributes to a “Corbyn bounce”. With national TV coverage, social media and his personal appearances in Scotland, Corbyn’s message of hope and the impressive content of the Labour Manifesto began to make an impact with Scottish voters. This was in stark contrast to poor campaign run by Scottish Labour, or rather by a narrow section of the leadership and bureaucracy of the party. They threw everything into attacking the SNP’s poor record in government due to its obsession with independence. These things definitely needed to be said, however, as the dominant motif of the campaign they became annoyingly repetitive. Without making the positive case for Labour’s policies it also made the party look as though it was in competition with the Tories, who were pitching the same line. Not a good look. Above all this approach did not address the Labour voters who had defected to the SNP in big numbers, having voted for independence. They did this largely because of disenchantment with Labour over decades and the belief that the SNP and independence offered some hope of social progress stymied by Tory and coalition governments in Westminster. Slogans like “only Labour can defeat the SNP” were hardly likely to win people over who were still not convinced that the SNP needed to be defeated. As some were won over and some won over by Corbyn so others were alienated by a Scottish Labour negative campaign.

Having said that Corbyn’s success offers Scottish Labour hope for the future. Not only have the SNP got problems, but the Scottish Tories will find it harder to distance themselves from the crisis-ridden party in the rest of the country, not to mention the difficulties which they will have in negotiating Brexit. This may help reverse some of their advances in Scotland, as will any bigger recovery in Lib Dem fortunes.

The SNP have relied on simplistic and unhistorical assertions about Scotland and England to woo left wing voters’ sympathies. They have brazenly adapted these as one by one they were proved faulty and their arguments are now unravelling.

We were told that we needed independence because fairness is in Scotland’s DNA and England is irredeemably Tory/UKIP. The election of a UKIP MEP in Scotland did not stall this narrative. Labour was a neo-liberal Party which Sturgeon described as “Tory-lite” during the 2015 general election. Others branded Labour “Red Tories” a phrase which bizarrely still has some currency. The SNP claimed that they would pull Labour to the left in Westminster. The best options for Scotland were, therefore, independence and the SNP. Did the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party change this? Hardly at all. Nicola Sturgeon repeatedly dismissed him using words like “pathetic” and scoffing at his leadership and electoral prospects. Although latterly when the SNP realised that they were beginning to lose ground to Labour in the election and Corbyn was gaining support they put forward the line that they would be better supporters of Corbyn than his own back-benchers, so still best to vote SNP.

Fortunately, however, despite the contortions of the SNP and their supporters ordinary voters are waking up to the possibilities of real change across Britain. SNP lies have been debunked – Labour is not irredeemably neo-liberal, it is electable and Jeremy Corbyn has demonstrated outstanding leadership. Scotland is not special – there are plenty of Tories here now. Though the vote share for Labour was still disappointing in the election it was headed in the right direction. Furthermore canvassers found people on the doorsteps much more thoughtful about how they would cast their votes, more positive about Labour and there was little hostility. With a more positive campaign they could re-connect with the hopes of voters who abandoned them for the SNP and gain significant successes in future elections.

Under pressure in the election the SNP began to make errors of judgement and their losses have opened up divisions in the party which are usually kept well submerged. What to do about a future independence referendum is a major headache and has forced Sturgeon to delay the projected date from Spring 2019 to 2021, though she still fudges that to keep her more fundamentalist supporters on board. These divisions are not just on the surface, but run deep. Corbyn’s challenge from the left will open up further conflict within the SNP about the direction it is taking. Managing the pressures of those who want more instant action on independence, the division between left and right in the party and unhappiness about the narrow clique which runs it will become increasingly hard to manage.

The only party dreading another election as much as the Tories is the SNP. Many of their MPs are sitting on small majorities and the rug has been pulled from under their narrative that only they represent a progressive option for Scotland. People must now know that Labour can form the next UK government and that the best way to achieve that is by actually voting Labour. If Scottish Labour learns the lessons from Corbyn’s campaign it could again be the biggest party in Scotland.

[1] At the 2015 general election the Greens stood in 32 constituencies and this time round in only 3. They are strong supporters of independence and there were allegations that they had quit the field to help the SNP, although it may simply be evidence that so-called radical alternatives to the SNP have run out of steam.

[2] Based on the SNP having polled nearly 1.5 million votes at the last election in 2015.