Is Scottish Labour back – and does it have a future?

Scottish Labour and British Labour are on a roll. It might not be seen as a positive by many in the SNP and for independence, but this is good news for Scottish politics overall, for democracy and even, ultimately, for the SNP and independence.

For too long the SNP have had it too easy, able to dominate Scottish politics without challenge, growing ever more complacent and filled with a degree of arrogance, while becoming ever more mediocre and governing with an element of insouciance.

Sixteen years after Labour lost office by the narrowest of margins in 2007 (one seat and 15,853 constituency votes between the party and Nationalists and 40,196 regional votes), and after four successive Scottish Parliament and three Westminster election defeats, things have changed. Labour is on the way up and feels that it is coming back. Is this a genuine change in the political weather, or could it all be down to SNP problems that could blow over?

Scottish Labour has been through the mill. Between the elections of 1964 and 2010 it was the dominant force of Scottish politics, always able to count on 40+ Scottish seats being returned to Westminster. One seasoned observer of Scottish politics put it: ‘That Scottish Labour bedrock of 40-50 seats could not guarantee that Labour would win at an UK election. But what we can say with certainty is that without it, Labour faced an uphill and almost impossible task of ever winning an UK election on mostly English votes.’

There is Labour’s English problem. The party has only won a plurality of English votes on eight occasions in its entire history – 1945, 1950, 1951, 1966, October 1974, 1997 and 2001. Thus it has been returned to office five times when it lost the English vote – 1923, 1929, 1964, February 1974 and 2005. This this means on those same five occasions the party formed a UK Government based on Scottish and Welsh votes.

Even more critical is that Labour has throughout its history consciously and deliberately tried to avoid talking about England. It has seen England as a nation that dare not be invoked in case it causes right-wing nationalist sentiments and discontent with Scottish and Welsh devolution and the deal they get in the union.

England has been seen as a terrain for traditional Toryism, ‘a conservative nation’, a land and landscape invoked by Conservative writers and thinkers, and a nation which Labour and the left have wanted to see as subsumed in the idea of Great Britain and the UK. As is often the case, the exception to this is George Orwell, often cited, often misunderstood. And this tragic self-denying ordinance has come with heavy consequences; not talking about England has indeed in recent years allowed it to be captured by the right, by populists like Farage, and ultimately leading to the disaster of Brexit.

Scottish Labour is back – and everything has changed.

Scottish Labour for the first time in a long while has a spring in its step. It even has a few things going for it. It is united; it is professional in its operations; it has finally after years in opposition learnt how to campaign (at least in one by-election); and has a keen hunger to win. 

It has in Anas Sarwar someone who is media savvy, with a surer touch in the public face of politics than a Scottish Labour leader in many years. He is to put it mildly a huge advance on some of the amateur acts who have briefly inhabited the post. In the long arc of Labour history, the party has had ten leaders in the devolution era and some will pass into the mist of time – Richard Leonard elected in the Corbyn era; Iain Gray epitomised by his retreat into the Subway café in the 2011 election and Jim Murphy’s brief tenure as the party was blown apart by the 2015 Nationalist tsunami.

Labour face a tired, divided SNP and an out of touch, desperate Tory UK administration who have given up on proper government. The latter display an unappealing mixture of un-virtue signalling (HS2 cancelled but the £36bn plan ‘illustrative’ according to Rishi Sunak), performative cruelty and learned helplessness.

Scottish Labour has a message for voters who want to see the Tories out of office. The line that ‘voting Labour is the simplest and easiest way to remove the Tories’ has major cut through. It works by saying you can get rid of the Tories with one simple act: your vote. There is no need to worry about the upheavals and uncertainties of independence such as complex negotiations, dividing the assets and debts, and coming to a settlement. 

Critically it works better as a line than the Nationalist line for now of a ‘de facto referendum’ which Humza Yousaf has inherited from Nicola Sturgeon. This is a terrible political stance from the SNP, playing deliberately to their base not to voters, and is an act of desperation not of strength. 

Apart from the fact that ‘de facto referendum’ is not a campaign slogan, but a pretence at deception, everything about it is wrong. It infers that a majority of votes in 2024 is a mandate for independence, somehow overturning the precedent of an indyref and two million votes for the union. Nationalist advocates of it have even argued that a majority of seats would be a sufficient mandate – which is self-evidently delusional. Worse than all this, the DFR deception is a plan by the SNP leadership to shore up as much of the pro-independence vote behind them and prevent defections to Labour. It is the product of a party out of ideas, out of touch and out of time, talking to itself, and hence a major gift to Labour.

Despite this, the Scottish Labour Party still has major challenges, and needs to firmly address various major future issues. First, what is Scottish Labour’s actual offer in the positive – beyond getting onboard Keir Starmer’s bandwagon? Second, has Labour actually changed its tune and mindset from the years of arrogance and hubris? Its years in office were imbued with an entitlement culture, followed by a miserablist mindset of sitting in the corner scowling during the Nationalist ascendancy. Can it find a new Labour mood?

Third, Scottish Labour needs a new story and stance on the union that does not stand for the status quo, for the union as an end in itself, but for the union as a means to an end – for greater prosperity and social justice. And in this Gordon Brown’s Constitutional Commission, foisted on a reluctant Starmer leadership by the great man himself, is not the answer, clinging as it does to the last remnants of the ancien regime (parliamentary sovereignty, FPTP).

Is there a new Labour story of Scotland out there?

Above and beyond this, Scottish Labour needs to find a new mission and purpose beyond being against the SNP and Tories. It needs to find and tell a new story about Scotland, its future and Labour’s vision of it, which is easier said than done.

One central argument of The Strange Death of Labour Scotland, written by myself and Eric Shaw and published in the aftermath of Labour’s historic 2011 defeat, was that it was not just about the decline of the party. It was also about the death of a Labour vision of society – ‘Labour Scotland’ – built on council housing, trade union membership, and interventionist local government. These three pillars of ‘Labour Scotland’ allowed a party which never won a majority of the popular vote to speak to and be rooted in majority constituencies which these three groups gave it. All three pillars have been eroded, reduced to minorities – removing that version of Labour politics. This then leaves the question – what kind of vision and story does Scottish Labour have, if any?

These are good times for Scottish Labour and they have earned the right to bask in the glory of their Rutherglen by-election victory and opinion poll ratings which puts them on course for major gains in the 2024 Westminster election and 2026 Holyrood contest. The Panelbase poll at the weekend which projected Labour to emerge as the biggest party in the Scottish Parliament has been met with incredulity in SNP and independence circles, but that is the sort of hubris and disconnection that Labour people showed when they were in office pre-2007 about the rise of the SNP. It is characteristic of eras of one-party dominance – and of their slow end.

There are two fundamentals that the Scottish Labour party will need to address eventually. They must embody ideas, vigour, dynamism and intellectual curiosity. Wendy Alexander, a former leader, once said that ‘one of the last times the Labour movement in Scotland made a real intellectual contribution to the UK Labour Party was around the growth of the Independent Labour Party in 1906’.

This comment was always harsh in ignoring the febrile period of radical ideas in the 1920s for example but was overall broadly right. Scottish Labour cannot remain in the intellectually barren terrain of the managerialism they have represented for so long. Nor can they continue their default position of being uber-partisan and having a knee-jerk detestation of all things Tory and Nationalist: the last represented in past and present by the likes of Douglas Alexander who has continually compared Scottish nationalism with Brexit, the SNP and Farage (which suggests he understands neither).

Secondly, many pro-independence readers will scream at this article: ‘Scottish Labour does not exist’, it is merely in the words of another former leader Johann Lamont ‘a branch office’ of the main operation. The latter is an accurate description of the current state, but the former is an over-statement and caricature. Yet Scottish Labour does eventually have to become fully autonomous, self-governing and to fully assert its own identity and purpose. A name already exists – the Independent Labour Party – and a template, and while it will not happen in the run-up to 2024 and 2026 and their aftermath, such a rebrand is eventually needed for the party to have wider credibility.

Good times for Scottish Labour as well as British Labour. The Tories and SNP in disarray. The political and intellectual weather changing perhaps beyond party affiliation for the longer-term. Such changes happen rarely, perhaps once in every generation or two.

They are aided in this by the continual mistakes of their opponents; both the SNP and Tories face difficult intra-party conversations informed by their long-term strategic weaknesses. Even the defection of SNP MP Lisa Cameron to the Tories over what she saw as a ‘toxic’ culture of ‘bullying’ in the Nationalists works to the advantage of Labour: ‘vote SNP, get Tory’ can now be a Labour campaign slogan with edge.

Labour enter the 2024 and 2026 elections in good spirits and with their opponents in retreat. Can Scottish Labour really show it is able to seize on this and be the change it claims it now is? The forces of conservatism are still powerful in Scottish politics, in Labour, as they are in the SNP, and then there is the balance of forces in Starmer’s Labour and the wider huge challenges the party faces if, and when, it wins office next year. 

Storm clouds lie ahead for the UK economy and society, but for now Scottish Labour have feel confident that things are on the up. The immediate future will be Labour. But can they use it to tell a more compelling story and to reshape Scotland and the UK?

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