Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Where next for Scottish Labour?

Kezia Dugdale’s determination has dragged Scottish Labour from the brink of collapse to relevance again, writes Progress strategy board member Sheila Gilmore

As the news filtered through to our count some of us hardly believed what we were hearing. Not the exit poll, but the fact that Labour was winning Scottish seats – in the west of Scotland, too! After all the turmoil of the last few years we had, without realising it, started to internalise the mantra that ‘Labour is finished in Scotland’. Despite working hard, our heads were down and our expectations low. In 2011 in Edinburgh the Scottish National party won five out of six Holyrood seats and we held on to just one. Five years later we won a seat back from the SNP but lost the one we held in 2011. In May 2016 we won only three first past the post seats across Scotland, and, like the Tories before us, found ourselves clinging to the life raft that is proportional representation. Even as recently as a month ago in the council elections, although we avoided the total rout some were predicting, we did not do well.

Seven seats may not sound much, but it is not just the gains that give hope. In 2015 the SNP did not just win, it won big, turning large Labour majorities into massive SNP ones. Many of the remaining SNP constituencies are now highly marginal. The SNP vote fell from 50 per cent to 37 per cent this time.

So where now for Scottish Labour? In hindsight we may have been too cautious, but even careful analysis of the council results only made East Lothian, and possibly Midlothian, look within reach. Last week the Tories won more seats and won 28.6 per cent of the vote – compared to Labour’s 27.1 per cent . Many of the Tory gains were seats with a long Conservative history, in the north-east where in the 1980s-90s voting SNP seemed a safe alternative to the out-of-favour Thatcherite Tories. Stirling was Tory until won by Labour in 1997 and ably held onto by Anne Maguire until 2015.

Importantly, this election has broken the logjam that has been Scottish politics for the last few years. After 2015 particularly, the SNP has swatted away criticisms of its governing record as attacks on the Scottish people (nurses, doctors, teachers, even pupils) because they argued only they spoke for Scotland. Voters have not only shown that they do not want a second independence referendum, but also that Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat criticisms of the Scottish government resonate with their own personal experiences. Into this space we not only have to continue our critique but also develop our own clear policy programme. At Holyrood we may be able to force some changes of direction on the Scottish government, especially by putting pressure on the Scottish Greens to remember their policy programme instead of prioritising ‘indyref2’ as they did at the time of this year’s budget.

For example, tackling educational inequalities means putting more effort into early years education, not the gesture politics of baby boxes, but more places and more staff. It also means looking at fast and effective ways of making up for the error of cutting teacher training places (even the responsible minister has agreed that was a mistake). Is there a place for a Scottish version of Teach First? The unions are wary but Labour and the unions should get together to talk about it at least. Learning support staff have been cut in Scottish schools. We need to look at practical ways of restoring their funding.

Each and every policy area needs us to fill in the detail. Hopefully now the logjam is broken, the third sector, the unions and business organisations (many of whom have seen the SNP as the only show in town) will start talking to and working with us.

And we can – and should – use this time to challenge the Tories on their national policies. When all the concentration was on constitutional matters it was too easy to characterise us being the same as the Tories.

This is only the beginning of our recovery, and the sheer volatility of the results over the last two general elections must make us cautious. But our confidence is returned and that is the first step to moving forward. Kezia Dugdale’s dogged determination in the face of both external and internal critics has been rewarded.


Sheila Gilmore is a member of the Progress strategy board. She tweets @SheilaGilmore49


Photo: Richard Gardner

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Sheila Gilmore

is the former member of parliament for Edinburgh East


  • You mean the electorate that voted in more Tory MPs than Labour ones?

    Kezia is actually a very good leader, especially as she’s overseen an unexpected Labour recovery in Scotland.

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