It is election night 2011. A young 19-year-old me is slouched over a sofa in a friend’s living room after a 15-hour-long door knocking session for Labour. The party, which has been narrowly out of power since 2007, has been fighting to reclaim its place as the dominant party of Scottish politics, having won every election except one since the 1959.
As the night progresses, our efforts are slowly revealed to be fruitless. The pro-independence Scottish National Party wins an unexpected majority. Like a horror movie, we all reluctantly watch the screen through our fingers as Labour’s vote stalls in traditional heartlands and the SNP surges ahead. Each of us thinks to ourselves “surely this is as bad as it gets”.
Five years on, this year’s Scottish Parliamentary elections have shown how wrong we all were. Even in the 2015 UK-wide general election, where Labour was reduced to one seat in Scotland, the party at least managed to claim that it was the main alternative to the SNP. This year Labour is in third place. The Scottish Conservative Party has the responsibility for reducing the number of straws which Labour members can clutch. The lesson appears to be that where there is the chance to lose votes, an election is never as ‘bad as it gets’. It can always be worse.
So what was important about this year’s general election? Firstly, the election symbolised the inauguration of national identity as the basis from voting, with class kicked from office. Whereas Labour traditionally fought elections with the support of the working classes; the two winners of this election have deep links with the notions of British Unionism and Scottish Secessionism. The first of these being the pro-independence SNP and second being the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party. Secondly, this election returned a majority in favour of independence, meaning that there is a good chance that Scotland may hold another independence referendum. It is almost certain there will be one if Britain votes to leave the EU.
For your convenience, I have produced a few maps which show these changes. The first shows a sea of yellow representing the now dominant Scottish National Party, who increased their vote share but lost seats thanks to Scotland’s semi-proportional electoral system. Underneath the victors, there is a different story. Looking at the second place parties, the Conservatives appear to have become more influential. Not only are Labour in third place in the Scottish Parliament, but they have lost their second place finishes in 14 constituencies.
Labour has also suffered as a result of their second place finishes. Although seemingly propositional, Scotland’s electoral system actually has more constituency seats than list seats, meaning that a party which wins the seats in constituencies have a narrow advantage over those who gain their seats on the proportional regional list votes. For every seat the Conservatives won on the constituency vote, they came second in 2.5 others. For every seat Labour won, they came second in 9.8 others.
Source: Wikimedia Commons. The latter has been edited by the author.
It wasn’t the electoral system that broke Labour though. In 2011, Labour lost only 17,000 votes in their constituency seats. This year the party lost 116,000 votes. Meanwhile, the Conservative and Unionist party has increased their support across the country, by 225,000 votes to be precise. The next map shows where these changes have happened. In them, every point in the scale between -100 and +100 represents 50 votes lost or won.
Source: Wikimedia Commons, edited by the Author.
Labour’s performance map is almost entirely red, much like the manifesto which British Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn will likely expect Britons to endorse in 2020. Unfortunately for him, Labour’s attempt to out-manoeuvre the SNP on the left has utterly failed. Labour’s worst performances came in traditionally working-class labour areas, where the SNP have now increased their majorities. Labour’s finishes in its former heartlands were not simply second places, but distant second places, with a few exceptions.
The Conservatives’ map, meanwhile, is almost entirely green. In areas which were traditionally Conservative before 1997, when it was destroyed in Scotland, the party increased their votes dramatically, often by above the 5000 vote benchmark which I had chosen. This should be worrying for the SNP, which has held many of these areas for decades. In fact, in the historically nationalist North East of Scotland, the SNP fared poorly. The party’s move to the left, alongside its more overt espousing of independence, appears to have alienated its traditional core vote, which the Conservatives have seized upon. This has left both the Labour Party and SNP with over-lapping heartlands.
So what explains this change in Scottish politics? Although we will not have clear evidence until the Scottish Election Study is released, as I lack their expensive and expansive polling data, I can put forward a number of hypotheses which appear likely at this stage.
Firstly, the independence referendum in 2014 appears to have polarised Scottish politics around whether Scotland should leave or stay as part of the UK. Ahead of the referendum, Labour was neck-and-neck with the SNP. After the vote, the ‘Yes’ to independence campaign’s strategy of winning over Labour voters to supporting secession has, in turn, made them more likely to support the SNP. This year, the SNP has continued to paint secession as the left-wing choice and Unionism the right-wing choice, something which threatens Labour’s support. The Labour Party has made matters worse, in this regard, by choosing to have no opinion on independence, rather than attempting to win back their former supporters to the Union.
Meanwhile, the Conservatives have made the most of their historic attachment to Unionism. Ruth Davidson, their leader, had no qualms about mentioning the party’s commitment to the Union, portraying a vote for her party as a vote against leaving the UK. The polarisation of the country around whether to stay in or leave the UK has benefited the SNP and Conservatives, and harmed Labour.
To address this, Labour should consider building a left-wing case for the union to win back its old voters. Terms such as ‘Unionist’ will do little to win back voters, but ‘Federalist’ or ‘Devolutionist’ are more fitting to the party’s historic stance on the Scottish constitution. Its neutral stance will not only alienate it on the major question of the times, but it threatens to undermine the unity of the UK by allowing the SNP to make independence a left-right issue.
The second reason for this change may relate to wider trends in declining centre-left parties and also Labour’s troublesome internal politics. As you can see in the graph below, it is clear that Labour has been shedding votes since the turn of the millennium.
Labour has been through three phases. The first is the period before 1997, where Labour regularly gained more than one million votes, with the exception of Michael Foot’s 1983 campaign. The second phase shows a decline after the founding of the Scottish Parliament. In these elections, Scots appear to have been more likely to vote Labour to win in London, but less likely in Scotland. It was in 2003 that the party really began to struggle, with the elections of 2007 and 2011 being even poorer.
Since 2007, Labour has been through five leaders as it has struggled with competing expectations as being the largest party in Scotland and also being in opposition. The removal of Johann Lamont in 2014 did not only replace the party’s leader, but also the party’s strategy which had taken three years to develop. As a result, Scottish Labour’s image and management problems appear to have undermined faith in its abilities. Labour must work with unity and as a party seeking to build a new support base over the coming years. This may take a considerable amount of time.
After a 17-year decline, and a polarising referendum, Labour can no longer rely on its conventional wisdom. Class seems less important than nationality in today’s world. If the identities of the working class and those supporting independence are allowed to be unified, it is likely that Labour’s decline will continue and that the Union will be placed in jeopardy. Labour now has, not one, but two arguments to win; that they best represent the interests of working Scots and that working Scots are best served by the Union. If the party fails to win these arguments, this election may not be as bad as it gets.