How not to win back Scotland

1 September 2015: I’ve written this article in response to my many comrades who believe a Corbyn-led Labour Party will automatically be competitive in Scotland. I hope this happens. I hope that the benefit outlined below outweighs the demonisation strategy that the media and much of the establishment will pursue. But this cannot be taken for granted. There absolutely has to be a plan for regaining Scotland that goes beyond being more leftwing. Here’s why…

Despite the seemingly constant analysis since the election, relatively little has been said about the place where our defeat was most crushing. Only one of Labour’s Scottish MPs has survived and we are now polling 30+ points behind the SNP.

English and Welsh representatives are understandably wary of dictating solutions. Partly they wish to avoid furthering the ‘branch office’ perception and partly they simply don’t want to make their comrades feel any worse. As Tony Blair put it, lecturing Scottish Labour would be like saying to someone “back from four years at the battle of the Somme, ‘I’ll tell you what I would have done’.”

This is not good enough. Our politicians are selected to show leadership and they must stop ducking this responsibility. For one, decisions taken at a UK level undoubtedly have a massive impact on Labour’s chances of recovery in Scotland. Moreover, the empty handwringing has left room for a familiar theory to become established: We lost Scotland because we were insufficiently different from the Tories.

At first glance this does seem plausible. After all, the Scots overwhelmingly voted for the anti-austerity, anti-tuition-fees, ‘socialist’ SNP. And everyone knows Scotland is far more leftwing than England. That’s why the Conservatives have only won one seat there since 1992, right?

I don’t think so. The ‘Tartan Tories’, as we called them not so long ago, are hardly progressive paragons. During eight years in government the SNP have allowed health and education funding to fall behind the rest of the UK, with accompanying poorer performance, while instead prioritising investment in areas benefitting the middle class (transport, culture, business subsidies, etc). Contrary to their statist rhetoric, they have presided over the privatisation of services like ambulances and ferries; and until recently their flagship policy was to reduce corporation tax.

Some liken the SNP’s approach to ‘Blairite neoliberalism’, but this ignores New Labour’s massive improvements in public services and revolution in workers’ rights. By contrast the SNP’s main achievement is cultivating the image of a compassionate party without requiring any meaningful sacrifice from the chattering classes.

Of course, this is not how proponents of ‘Red Tories’ theory see it. To them, Labour’s rout in Scotland is the toxic legacy of our last government. However, the notion that voters who overwhelming backed Blair and Brown in four general elections (two of them after Iraq) have only just realised they were virulently anti-New Labour, requires considerably more justification than has been offered.

This belief is underpinned by the incorrect assumption that Scots are significantly more leftwing than the English. Take the oft cited example of university fees. The British Social Attitudes report puts Scottish support for some sort of fees at 74%, compared to 79% in England. A discernible difference, yes, but far smaller than is commonly supposed, and no bigger than we see between different regions of England.

The report (along with other studies) shows this trend is mirrored across other political issues. But don’t feel the need to painstakingly read through the evidence, simply watch any Question Time held in Scotland. You’ll see an audience capable of being just as rightwing as those south of the border.

This misapprehension is amplified by the SNP’s efforts to capture former Labour voters. Given the clear public opposition to another referendum, the SNP needed to highlight a different distinction between itself and the ‘corrupt Westminster establishment’. Condemning austerity was the obvious choice. And because the SNP has painted itself as synonymous with Scottish identity, we have mistakenly assumed they represent the opinions of the majority of Scots.

In reality, Scottish voting patterns since the late 70s are primarily driven by a generational dislike of the Conservative Party. More recently, the Labour to SNP switch was largely fallout from the independence referendum. As shown in the British Election Study report, almost all of these switchers supported independence; and almost all former Labour voters who supported independence have switched.

In summary: The SNP aren’t leftwing, they just pretend to be; Scotland isn’t particularly leftwing, though everyone thinks it is; and Labour didn’t lose because we weren’t leftwing, we lost because of the referendum.


Labour’s predicament in Scotland is exactly as bad as many think. Voting patterns from places which had similarly close independence referenda do show that national parties can win back votes lost in the immediate aftermath. However, in the most comparable example, Quebec, this took nearly two decades. With the SNP managing to present themselves as an insurgent group, while simultaneously benefiting from incumbency bias, it looks dispiritingly unlikely that things will change soon.  As the current balance of powers allows many of Scotland’s problems to be blamed on Westminster, even a significant Holyrood screw-up might not be enough.

Despite all of the above, I do not claim a leftwing platform would be no use in winning back Scotland. To an extent progressiveness has been absorbed into the perception of what it means to represent Scots inside the union, even if it isn’t strictly reflected in the policy detail. As such, a more leftwing Labour Party might stand a better chance of engaging with Scottish national identity. However, I worry that even a small effect would require a significant move leftwards. Significant enough to damage us in the English marginals that make up the overwhelming majority of our parliamentary deficit; and significant enough to put off many of the Scottish voters deemed leftwing by the national discourse, but who don’t actually hold particularly leftist views.

Of course, the detailed plans to re-connect with the Scottish electorate will not be crafted by a blogging Islington yuppie who last visited the country a year ago. If there is anything I would recommend, it is not some Scotland specific magic bullet, but the same political basics required to win back the wider UK. Gain economic credibility; demonstrate competent and charismatic leadership; and expose failures in government policy, especially those that don’t require ideological buy-in to recognise. Our progress against these objectives will largely determine the UK-wide narrative on whether Labour is ready to replace the Conservatives in government. This is the biggest single electoral factor within our control, North or South of the border.

That Scotland is not as leftwing as supposed is initially disappointing, but alongside the above it establishes my ultimate conclusion: The choice between appeasing a reactionary England and a progressive Scotland is a false one. Labour does not need contradictory policy offers for the different nations of our union. If we nail the fundamentals we can appeal to everyone.


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