In their chapter for the Oxford Handbook of Scottish Politics, Gerry Hassan and Eric Shaw trace the fall of Scottish Labour as Scotland's dominant party.
This chapter traces the decay of Scottish Labour as it was ousted from its decades-long position as Scotland’s dominant party. It describes how, in its earlier years, it succeeded in rooting itself in the social, political and institutional life of Scotland, acquiring the status of both the custodian of the working class in alliance with sections of the middle class, and as the principal advocate of Scottish interests in the union.
But the foundations of its supremacy were never as sturdy as they appeared. Scottish Labour never managed to build a resilient mass party on the classic social democratic model. The ease with which First Past the Post enabled it to hoover up masses of seats at both Westminster and local government level distracted it from the reality of its shrinking electorate and encouraged complacent indifference as membership and constituency activism languished. Thus although in the generation pre-devolution it won the overwhelming majority of parliamentary seats the reality was that it garnered in the seven elections between February 1974 and 1997 an average of 39.5 per cent of the vote (while in 1997 winning 78% of parliamentary seats).
Far from devolution ‘killing nationalism stone dead’ it became increasingly evident that it multiplied and complicated the challenges confronting Scottish Labour. Thus not only did it struggle with the problems afflicting all social democratic parties: the decay of strong collectivist institutions, ideas and identities and much more fragile political allegiances, but it had to wrestle with new threats. These included its exposure to the dynamics of territorial, multi-level politics, the rise of the politics of national identity and sustained assault from an energetic, cohesive and disciplined SNP seeking to displace it as Scotland’s premier party, government and primary expression of centre-left politics.
Here Scottish Labour was hampered by the perception that it was little more than a ‘branch office’ of the British party – with the moniker ‘London Labour’ hung on it by the SNP. The chapter assesses this contention by analysing the organisation of the Scottish party and its relationship with the wider UK party. The picture that emerges is a complex one in which the Scottish party struggled to assert itself as an autonomous force and be seen as such by voters. Gradually the Scottish party did acquire more control over its own internal affairs. Thus, in the years 2000 and 2001 agreement was reached to devolve the right to determine procedures for both selecting candidates and electing the leader of the Scottish party.
On the central issue of the conduct of policy, Scottish Labour in its years in government did, in such crucial areas as healthcare and education, pursue a trajectory distinctively different from New Labour and more in keeping with Scotland’s social democratic sensibility. Aside from an acrimonious dispute over social care for the elderly, disagreements between the two parties were managed and contained by seeking, as far as possible, to keep them out of the public eye. This helped promote an image of harmony but at the expense of masking the degree to which the Scottish party was marking out its own political space.
The dynamics of Labour’s territorial politics altered from 2007 when the Scottish party was defeated, and after 2010 when British Labour also lost power. From 2007 onwards, the Scottish party suffered repeated electoral setbacks in both Holyrood and Westminster elections. This inevitably produced pressure for more autonomy for Scottish Labour. Thus, in the wake of Scottish Labour’s near wipeout at the 2015 UK election, a package of reforms, agreed by the new leaders of the Scottish and British parties, Kezia Dugdale and Jeremy Corbyn, gave the Scottish party more control over organisation, policy and finance. But the process of decentralisation had been slow and halting, and not able to reverse the politics of decline – in electoral support, representation and relevance.
Dugdale’s surprising resignation as leader in August 2017 accelerated the ideological polarization of the Scottish party which had already enveloped the British party. In the ensuing contest for the succession Richard Leonard, a former GMB official and Corbyn supporter, defeated Anas Sarwar, former deputy leader. It was a fiercely fought election which left the party bitterly divided. Nor was there any sign, under new leadership, of electoral revival. Scottish Corbynites had convinced themselves that by pursuing a policy of outflanking the SNP from the left they would rewin lost ground and voters, but instead the party struggled to be heard, and say anything distinctive which cut through.
Having forfeited its status as Scotland’s natural party of government, Scottish Labour’s vote shrunk to such a degree that it is no longer even the official opposition. It has wrestled unavailingly with mastering the new territorial politics and the catch-all politics of the SNP first under Alex Salmond, then Nicola Sturgeon.
It was slow to grasp that, the arrival of the Scottish Parliament with a proportional electoral system (which Labour helped to devise) would bring about a new politics of competition and pluralism, one where Labour’s long record as incumbents would come under scrutiny, and the SNP would have the advantage of being the natural challengers to Labour.
Having said that, Labour started the devolution era with some advantages: a record of winning, a mix of older and newer talent in Holyrood, and with the SNP having never won a national election. It says much about the poor quality of Labour post-1999 that it has exhausted these positives, lacking creativity, vision and imagination as well as competence in how it did politics. Above all the party in office, and now over a decade in opposition, has failed to ask tough, existential questions: what does it stand for and who does it claim to speak for? Does the demise of ‘Labour Scotland’ herald the near-too terminal decline of Scottish Labour?
Gerry Hassan is a writer and commentator and Research Fellow in Contemporary Scottish History at the University of Dundee. Eric Shaw is an Honorary Research Fellow in the division of History and Politics at the University of Stirling.
'The Scottish Labour Party' was published in The Oxford Handbook of Scottish Politics in August 2020 in the UK and Europe by the Oxford University Press.