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State of the Left - Scotland

A time for reflection

Emma Kinloch - 19 May 2016

Following this month’s elections, Scottish Labour must come to recognise that devolution has not followed the path envisaged by its founders

109 votes. 0.3 per cent of the vote. Labour hold.

24 seats, 3 constituencies. 3rd place.

One night; two very different results.

In the constituency of Dumbarton, a Labour seat since its inception in 1999, Labour’s Jackie Baillie held on – just.  It was an unexpected victory in a night which polls predicted would bring with it a Labour wipeout in constituency seats. One victory, however, does not mask the fact that the Scottish people sent a clear message to the architects of devolution; rejection both in government and opposition.

Baillie’s hold in Dumbarton is remarkable in two ways. The two Westminster seats which the Holyrood Dumbarton constituency straddles now both have new sizeable SNP majorities. And it also encompasses one of only four areas that had a majority yes vote in 2014’s referendum (West Dunbartonshire).

Dumbarton constituency also takes in Helensburgh, a relatively affluent area with a large proportion of Faslane Naval Base workers, the military base where the UK’s nuclear weapons system Trident is stationed.  At the Scottish Labour party conference earlier this year a motion was passed to reject the renewal of Trident. Baillie broke with the party line to make a stand for her constituents’ livelihoods. Queue backbiting, citing supposed personal ambition ahead of ideological purity (not quite, given that Baillie was voted top of regional list so would have been returned to the Scottish parliament regardless) from the left of the party.  This is particularly ironic given it was undoubtedly tactical Conservative voters in Helensburgh who managed to keep the SNP at bay. The very policy promoted by both Scottish and national leaders very nearly cost Labour one of their few victories.

Taking a wider look at the election outcome the Conservatives had their best night since the inception of Scottish devolution, with an affable leader who deftly distanced herself from the old Etonians in London. They are now viewed as the only custodians of the union. This is in no small part due to the Labour leadership’s less than strident support of unionism when asked about the party’s position in the all but inevitable second independence referendum. 

The SNP triumphed for a third successive election in a proportional system, specifically designed to ward against one-party dominance. Although we may have reached ‘peak SNP’, we did not see the total devastation of last year’s general election results. They were 400,000 votes down from last year’s general election and were two seats off an overall parliamentary majority. The Conservatives’ strong showing also indicates a depth of support for the union, and in turn a strong opposition to another parliamentary session dominated by constitutional wrangling.

Donald Dewar’s famous foreshadowing that “devolution is a process and not an event” is something Scottish Labour needs to get to grips with. A move to a federal party structure will not solve the growing pains the party is working through. The Scottish party needs support from the national party but also the freedom to recognise that devolution has followed a path not envisaged by its founders. Fresh thinking is required to address how the Scottish Labour party fits into the settlement 17 years hence.

Although guided primarily by their pursuit of nationalism, the SNP have still managed to capture the language of the left and now the Scottish Conservatives are the ones trusted to hold the SNP to account in their position as the official opposition. This places the Scottish Labour party in a bind. To outflank the SNP to the left would seem unwise considering the centre-right resurgence in Scotland and their 2016 manifesto, placed firmly in this mould, was resoundingly rejected by the electorate.

What next? How can the Scottish Labour party become relevant to the debate again? A wholesale review not only of the errors of the Scottish election but party structures and management, particularly its relationship with the Westminster party, is unavoidable. This needs to be a frank and transparent conversation. Backbiting and long held grudges have for nearly a decade defined the Scottish party. An openness and willingness to adapt to the new version of the devolution settlement is paramount. Kezia Dugdale’s choice to stay in post will provide the party with a much needed period of continuity and reflection (and self-reflection).

We need the Scottish Labour party to again become a credible alternative in Holyrood. The SNP have for nine years got away with characterising themselves as underdog anti-establishment figures while those the Labour party seeks to represent have been suffering through falling literacy levels, ever increasing NHS waiting lists, further education college places being cut to the bone and the deeply regressive council tax freeze.

Looking at the UK-wide picture we also need the Scottish Labour party to make tangible change ahead of the 2020 general election, or we are almost certainly looking at a Conservative prime minister in Downing Street until 2025, if not beyond.

Emma Kinloch is senior events and stakeholder manager at Policy Network.

This article is a contribution to State of the Left – Policy Network's regular insight bulletin reporting from across the world of social democratic politics

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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