Labour’s modest gains in Scotland have set the party on course for future success, believes Duncan Hothersall
The headlines of the general election result in Scotland are by now well known. The Scottish National party’s all-conquering moment seems to be over, and the party’s internal dissenters have broken cover for the first time in a decade. A Scottish Tory resurgence saved Theresa May’s bacon and made Ruth Davidson even more central to the party’s painfully slight grip on power. And Kezia Dugdale’s Scottish Labour is back from the dead with a surprise gain of six new members of parliament to join Ian Murray in Westminster.
Behind the headlines it gets even more interesting. The 2015 majorities being defended by the SNP were substantial – tens of thousands in some cases. But of the 35 seats the SNP held onto in June, seven had their majorities over Labour slashed to less than a thousand. In Glasgow South West, a near 10,000 SNP majority was cut to just 60. The SNP held Glasgow East by just 75 votes. Incredible work by candidates and campaigners won back thousands of voters for Labour.
Put in context, this means that a further swing to Labour of just one per cent in Scotland would have doubled our number of MPs. And to have become the largest party in Scotland would have required a swing of only three per cent more. This is an astonishing turnaround for a Scottish party dismissed as dead and buried after the local elections a month earlier.
In perhaps the most extraordinary result of the night, in the seat the SNP poured its efforts into and talked up as its number one target – Labour’s last remaining stronghold, Edinburgh South – Ian Murray actually turned what was Scotland’s smallest majority in 2010 into its largest in 2017, increasing his vote by nearly 16 percentage points in two years to now be sitting 15,000 votes clear of his SNP rival.
So how did all this happen? Aside from the inspiring hard work of volunteers, there were three key strands to the Scottish Labour strategy, and critically, they enjoyed the support of both the United Kingdom-wide and Scottish leadership.
The first was to be unequivocal in our opposition to independence and to a second referendum, arguing rightly that Scots did not want more division and that splitting the UK would lead to turbo-charged austerity. Our argument that it was time to move on from constitutional wrangling, which had been made since 2014 in various guises, finally had enough momentum to be listened to.
The second strand was to continue and reinforce our challenge to the SNP’s pretence of being progressive champions. Jeremy Corbyn’s 2017 manifesto was perhaps not quite as radical as Dugdale’s 2016 one, but it certainly reinforced the message that Scottish Labour has been arguing since 2015, that we remain the true progressive option in Scotland, and that the SNP is actually the party of tax cuts for the rich, talking left but acting right.
The third key position was more important to our results in the rest of the UK than to our Scottish result, and that was to clearly and unambiguously rule out at the start of the campaign any electoral deal with the SNP. Corbyn, under heavy pressure from all strands of Scottish Labour, avoided Ed Miliband’s mistake in 2015 of leaving it far too late to rule this out. Lynton Crosby’s attacks on the supposed ‘coalition of chaos’ this would have created were thus largely neutralised.
Behind all these strategic positions, the smart move pushed by Dugdale, endorsed by Corbyn, to ensure Scottish Labour selected its own candidates and published its own manifesto neutralised the ‘London led’ attacks we have suffered in the past. Indeed, there was many a wry smile as the same SNP folk who had accused us of being UK Labour’s puppets a month before were now claiming we were disloyal mavericks.
What is truly exciting about this resurgence is that it demonstrates that the breadth of appeal Labour needs to find across the UK to win power is achievable. The election was dominated by talk of a progressive alliance but Labour was founded to be that alliance, and the common ground between the different wings of the party sought and found in Scotland showed promising signs of how that could happen again across the UK.
And what happens next in Scotland could be a massive opportunity for Dugdale to build on her success. The SNP has passed the point at which dangling a second referendum is enough to give them a landslide, and under relentless pressure from Labour its actual record in government – an education system failing pupils and a National Health Service in crisis – is finally being seen by the electorate.
And much of the Tory vote in June was a ‘stop the second independence referendum’ vote. The prospect of a second referendum will soon be off the table, and Labour will have the opportunity to persuade the many of those who were reluctant Tory voters this time to listen to a Scottish Labour party just as clear in its opposition to independence but with a much fairer plan for running the country.
Dugdale and Corbyn have found the common ground needed for Scottish Labour’s resurgence. For that they should both be applauded. Scottish Labour is back.
Duncan Hothersall is editor of Labour Hame. He tweets at @dhothersall
Photo: Richard Gardner
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