Back to the Future, Or Not: The Strange Rise of Scottish Labour

Gerry Hassan

Open Democracy, January 19th 2011

Scottish politics is away to change and not change – with according to the most recent TNS-BMRC poll – Scotland getting itself into a frenzy of excitement at the anticipation of Iain Gray’s Scottish Labour returning to office (1).

The figures are worth highlighting: Labour is polling 49% of the constituency vote and 47% of the regional vote: enough to see it get an impressive 69 seats in the 129 seat Parliament and thus an overall majority.

What is going on behind these figures? Can they be possibly right? And what happens if they – or something similar – does come about?

First, those figures with Labour on 49% and 47% show the SNP on 33% on both votes. This shows Labour gaining massively since 2007 and the SNP holding the vote which saw them win the elections and become for the first time the Scottish Government. The most recent movement in the polls since August 2010 shows Labour up in both votes, and the SNP up one point in the first and three in the second.

What has happened is the squeeze of the Conservatives and Lib Dems, who are down to 9% and 7% respectively in both votes; compared to 2007 the Tory constituency vote is down 8% and the Lib Dems 9% (2). This would result in a Parliament with 69 Labour (+23), SNP 46 (-1), Conservative 8 (-9) and Lib Dems 6 (-10).

This poll needs to be looked at with caution for it both tells us something while over-stating the case. First, Labour are gaining votes in Scotland as the coalition becomes unpopular. We have been here many times before: 1970, 1979 etc. Second, the Tories and Lib Dems are in trouble in Scotland and going to lose votes in May.

However, I believe this poll massively over-states the position – and I will take that view until we have a succession of polls saying the same. Labour hasn’t polled 49% since 1966 and I don’t expect them to get near that sort of vote again; nor should it expect to. It won 49.9% in Wilson’s landside in a two party system pre-modern SNP; to win any kind of vote in the mid-40s now Labour would be doing phenomenally well given we have multi-party politics. TNS-BMRC have history here; their record Labour leads of 16% and 14% on the two votes was nearly matched by their previous poll in August 2010 which showed only slighter smaller Labour leads of 14% and 12%; the Ipsos-MORI poll found Labour leads of 3% and 9%.

And we need a bit of caution about the Conservatives and Lib Dems falling so low. It is possible. Neither has much of a base to allow it to endure unpopularity, but in both there must be some residual, loyalist vote below which they can’t fall. There is also quite a bit of variance going in the UK polls about the Lib Dems – which could reflect the transference of ‘the spiral of silence’ to them.

Whatever the exact picture Scottish politics are seeing an initial return to Scottish Labour, and this isn’t that surprising, given the return of ‘the Tory bogeyman’ and the taking of the Lib Dems out of the opposition equation. In England, Labour have the entire opposition terrain to themselves and anti-government constituency to appeal to, whereas in Scotland they have to fight tooth and nail for it with the SNP.

Why though are people turning to Labour is a question many are asking? This is about wanting to feel a sense of safety, associate with the familiar and not take any risks in an age of turbulence. The climate of public spending cuts in a country with a larger public sector than the UK average and higher public spending means it makes sense to turn to the party of the Scottish public sector and extended state: Labour.

It is interesting to note the differential spread of Labour’s new appeal: with the party doing exceeding well amongst women (55% of constituency and 51% of list votes), amongst every age and class, and in its traditional West of Scotland strongholds in Glasgow and the surrounding areas (62% in West and Central; 58% in Glasgow constituency votes).

Voters here are returning to Labour and the West of Scotland is part of the country which the SNP have never done particularly well in; even in the high mark of SNP performance – the 2007 Scottish Parliament elections – the party only won 4 out of the 33 constituency seats in the West of Scotland (3). In short, the West of Scotland is still what provides Labour with its base to dominant Scottish politics, and which still causes the SNP problems.

Then there is the nature of the SNP victory in 2007, its appeal and record in office. The narrow SNP victory was a result of a set of benign factors which worked in the Nationalists favour, including ‘its favourable ratings on competence, commitment to Scottish interests and campaign tone’ with ‘a more positive and Scottish-orientated agenda’ than Labour (4). Much of this still exists still in 2011, but what is different is that in 2007 Labour’s Scottish credentials were under question with the phrase ‘London Labour’ used as an insult and the Blair long goodbye hanging over the party.

What sort of Scottish Labour is the party which looks like it might be on the brink of returning to office? This is a party which has steadied its nerves after losing office in 2007 and the nightmare experience of Wendy Alexander’s leadership. Iain Gray may not inspire many people but he has taught Labour how to harry and hound the SNP and be an opposition. It hasn’t been pretty or principled, but it has been effective.

A Scottish Labour which comes back to office is going to be a very different beast than the one which was last in office. For a start – we can discount the Doomsday scenario of them winning an overall majority; this will either be a minority Labour administration or alliance with Lib Dems and possibly Greens. Then there is the climate of public spending cuts, constraints and difficult choices.

Nothing in Labour’s lexicon has really prepared it for this. A Scottish Labour in such stormy waters, possibly as a minority government, without the backup of the British Labour machine in office is going to have act in a very different way. It wont be able to pursue the same intolerant, hectoring, authoritarian policies on a range of issues, where previously the party seemed to want to constantly tell Scots off like we some group of recalcitrant children.

Then there is the professional interest group Scotland which has generally identified with Labour, and who the SNP have failed to win over. This is one of the key constituencies in Scottish politics, and the pressures and tensions which will now be felt by this group – in terms of public spending choices – are going to have huge reverberations.

Basically, for the last two decades Labour and SNP have out promised each other on who can most cuddle up to professional interest group Scotland. Thus, across a range of areas in the public sector, education and health being the most important, the key dimensions of policy has been keeping the EIS and BMA sweet. This hasn’t served the Scottish public, given value for money, and increasingly it isn’t going to be an option.

A Scottish Labour returned to office in such hard times is going to have to face the main pillars of the extended Labour state in Scotland. This isn’t going to be pretty or attractive to watch, but will offer new opportunities in Scottish politics. Principally to the SNP to move beyond its safety first approach of winning over institutional Scotland to independence; it hasn’t worked and it will not work in future; and is also the wrong strategy for independence. It is a politics of preserving the conservative order of institutional Scotland, rather than be bold, radical and challenge the vested interests in the name of the people.

Whatever the result in May Scottish politics are not going ‘Back to the Future’, and the Scottish dimension, the debate around who can best represent Scotland’s voice and identity will still be centrestage politics. These are going to be testing times for the two main parties, Labour and SNP, and not one when their cautious incrementalism of the last few years is going to be of much use.

Notes

1. Robin Dinwoodie, ‘Lib Dems hit by backlash as Scottish vote collapses’, The Herald, January 17th 2011,

http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/home-news/libdems-hit-by-backlash-as-scottish-vote-collapses-1.1080206

2. UK Polling Report, January 17th 2011, http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/blog/archives/category/scotland

3. Gerry Hassan (ed.), The Modern SNP: From Protest to Power, Edinburgh University Press 2009, Chapter One, The Making of the Modern SNP: From Protest to Power.

4. Robert Johns, David Denver, James Mitchell and Charles Pattie, Voting for a Scottish Government: The Scottish Parliament Election of 2007, Manchester University Press 2010, Chapter Ten, Why Did the SNP Win?