Gerry Hassan: Scottish Labour are in a tailspin, but there is one way out


The Labour Party’s downward spiral in Scotland has been going on since the onset of devolution; it is a generational shift in the politics of the country which shows no sign of abetting.

The party has gone through nine leaders in the past twenty years – undoubtedly a sign of deep trouble and turbulence. It has fallen from first place to third in votes, and now struggles to be heard and to say anything of worth.

Current leader Richard Leonard is bereft of purpose and a project, obviously lacking credibility and voice – but the latter two points emanate from a deeper existential crisis. This is a party which has lost its way and still does not know how to do opposition and to challenge the SNP.

READ MORE: Richard Leonard’s future in doubt as Scottish Labour bomb in polls

The party’s own research underlines this position. The party’s 2019 election post-mortem review included focus group research in 2017 on its position in Scotland; voters described the party in a litany of negative comments from being a “shambles” to “totally duplicitous”, calling them a “shower of career politicians” who “have lost their way” and no longer represent the “working class”.

Keir Starmer has made an impact as British Labour leader but faces challenges everywhere: coming back from a massive electoral defeat in December 2019 and needing to win 124 seats to form a parliamentary majority of one – something Labour has only done twice in post-war times: 1945 and 1997.

If Labour stands for the status quo across the UK – dressed up as vague waffle on “greater federalism” – the party will continue to be squeezed between Tories and SNP

Starmer like Leonard has ruled out an indyref – and tried to sound emphatic on Scotland – unlike Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. The lesson he has taken from the Corbyn years is that their equivocation on Scotland and an indyref cost them votes in all directions and cannot be repeated.

All of the above is shaped by the dramatic Labour decline and confusion which has occurred since the party lost office to the SNP in 2007. In particular, post-2014 the party has lost voters to both the Tories and SNP, with emphatic pro-Unionists going in significant number to the Tories, and pro-independence and anti-Tory voters shifting to the SNP, leaving the party with a dwindling rump of support.

READ MORE: Nearly half of Yes voters would consider backing Alex Salmond party

The remaining Labour vote has slowly and inexorably post-2014 begun a journey to becoming more pro-independence. Recent surveys have put pro-independence support among Labour voters at 40% plus. This is an all-time high. There is only one way this support is going and that is upward.

The Starmer leadership have no understanding or analysis into Scotland, the state of public opinion or the independence question. They are second guessing in the dark – with the remnants of the party here hollowed out and lacking the previous generation of “big beasts” who were well connected into Westminster and provided part of the UK leadership for many years. They are reduced to following two strands – firstly, what a flailing Leonard leadership says and secondly, doing the opposite of the Corbyn years.

The party has literally said nothing original for its entire period of Holyrood opposition

This will not do for Labour. If the party stands for the status quo across the UK – dressed up as vague waffle on “greater federalism” – the party will continue to be squeezed between Tories and SNP. As more Labour voters consider independence the party cannot realistically keep them if it turns its back on them – and democracy – by saying that Scotland cannot have an indyref.

A Labour Party that stood for self-determination for Scotland would stand in the proudest traditions of Labour, the STUC and trade union movement. As Scottish opinion tilts towards independence one critical strand in the emergence of a new majority will be the Labour vote.

READ MORE: John Curtice: ‘Poll shows support for Union has never been weaker’

That means independence supporters need to understand that Labour, the labour movement and trade unions are more than the likes of Richard Leonard and his hard line position. They need to resist the over-the-top rhetoric of calling the party “Red Tories”, and challenge the party to come back to the best of its traditions and support self-government.

Scottish Labour has spent more than a decade making itself irrelevant to most voters and has backed itself into a cul-de-sac which has become a self-fulfilling ghetto. The party has literally said nothing original for its entire period of Holyrood opposition and most voters have stopped noticing the party or what it says or stands for. If it is to have any future – and no party has a divine right to exist – it has to stand for self-government and at the minimum for Scotland’s right to decide its own future.

This article is part of a new digital-only section of our website we are trialling, where we’ll bring you reaction, analysis and opinion pieces by our best writers in real-time, without you having to wait for the newspaper to be printed. Please send any feedback to callum.baird@thenational.scot!

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