Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Quiet revolution

Four years after being ejected from office, Scottish Labour looks set to return to power in May. How did it do it?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

There’s been a quiet revolution in Scottish politics over the last 18 months. The Labour party is back as the dominant force in the country and looks set for a convincing victory in the Scottish parliament elections this May. There’s many a slip, but the latest opinion poll puts Labour on 49 per cent, the Scottish National party on 33, while the Scottish Liberal Democrats have slumped to seven.

This hasn’t happened overnight. After losing power in 2007 – because of a toxic mix of a stale government, a deeply unpopular party and a confident, resurgent SNP – Scottish Labour was in denial. Refusing to accept defeat, unwilling to listen to the voters, arrogant and out of touch. The nadir was the Glasgow East by-election; the second safest seat in Scotland snatched by the SNP. The political narrative became one of the inevitable triumph of the nationalist cause.

Revival, under Jim Murphy as Scottish secretary and Iain Gray as leader in the Scottish parliament, had three main elements. First, humility and open acknowledgement of the defeat the voters had imposed. Second, a willingness to embrace what the voters wanted, including working in the national interest where necessary. Third, a greater sense of Scottishness, acknowledging, in Murphy’s words, that all nationalists are patriots, but not all patriots are nationalists. The results were first seen in the Glasgow North East by-election. This was followed by the three per cent swing to Labour in May last year.

There are obvious lessons for Ed Miliband – get the message to the voters that you accept you lost, and that they weren’t wrong. If you don’t, there will be no reconnection. Reclaim Englishness – from the landscape to liberty, this land is our land. Be willing to be seen to work with the coalition in the national interest. Not sufficient for recovery, but the essential foundations.

What, then, for Scottish Labour? Until May, it must fight for every vote and every seat. The closer it gets to recent poll numbers, the stronger the chance it can govern alone. If it wins, Scottish Labour cannot afford to hit the ground dawdling – the accusation thrown at Donald Dewar. The SNP – like Miltant-run Liverpool in the 1980s – have refused to make cuts, piling up unsustainable spending plans and delaying any hard choices until after the election.

The nationalists believe they are on a winner whatever happens. If they are re-elected, they will claim a mandate to fight the cuts and to break up Britain. If they lose, they will blame Labour – and the very existence of the UK – for the cuts. Scottish voters are too canny to fall for that. Scots remember the SNP’s boast that we could be like Ireland or Iceland. No, thanks. And they remember it was Scottish banks that blew up and were bailed out by British taxpayers. Gray’s opportunity is to be honest and plain speaking. Blaming the coalition for ideologically driven cuts, but proving where he can that Scottish Labour remains the people’s shield.


Photo: Donald Macleod

Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.

It takes time, commitment and money to build a fight against the forces of conservatism. If you value the work Progress does, please support us by becoming a member, subscriber or donating.

Our work depends on you.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

John McTernan

is former chief of staff to the leader of the Scottish Labour party. He is former political secretary at 10 Downing Street and was director of communications for former prime minister of Australia Julia Gillard. He tweets @johnmcternan


  • Interesting article though I think Labours poll lead is more to do with the collapse of the lib dem vote in Scotland – which has gone virtually en masse to Labour – than any particular comment on the SNP. Scots really do detest the Tories and Labour is seen (rightly in my opinion) as the best defender against the Tories. As someone who has voted Lab, SNP, Green and even LIB Dem! I would be happy with either Lab or SNP forming a government after May. Both parties have their pros and cons. Labour undoubtedly stronger on the social justice side -I`m v keen on the policy of reintroducing the future jobs fund – while the SNP have been impressive in gvt -Standing up to US pressure with the lockerbie decision, abolishing tution fees, ending private sector involvement in the NHS (In fact I`m v impressed by Nicola Sturgeon in general ). I just hope the Fib dems get a good kicking!

  • Only Scottish Nationalist Party Can Complete The Dream Of Sir William Wallace Of An Independent Scotland,A Free Scotland In Which We Scotts Believe.

Sign up to our daily roundup email