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How Labour lost Scotland

Labour Party

Reading the mainstream media in the UK these days, one might be forgiven for thinking that there is something akin to a revolution taking place in Scotland.

A poll published last week predicted that the Scottish National Party are on track to win all 59 of Scotland’s seats at Westminster, with various polls forecasting the SNP to win over 50 per cent of the vote in Scotland. Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the SNP and Scotland’s first female First Minister, is referred to in the press alternatively as either the most popular politician in these islands, or as the most dangerous woman in British politics. The Labour Party, some thirty-odd points behind the SNP, are facing a potential whitewash in Scotland – indeed their leader Jim Murphy seemed to capitulate yesterday when he all but admitted that Labour would not and could not win a majority in the UK due to the surge of the SNP.

All of this contradicts the inherited knowledge about elections in Scotland. In the past the Scottish electorate has employed a sophisticated form of tactical voting in which they largely vote SNP in Holyrood elections while voting Labour in Westminster elections in a (usually forlorn) attempt to prevent Conservative governments. The current election has seen this method neglected by a great number of the population. Instead, the SNP’s membership has reached over 100,000 while even prominent Labour MP’s such as Douglas Alexander and Jim Murphy are suffering the real threat of losing their seats.

It seems then that hugely significant changes might be afoot in Scotland. When describing these early signs of a great transformation, one of Scotland’s most prominent novelists, Kathleen Jamie, evokes the feeling of a ferry departing from a port: “for a long moment you can’t tell if it’s the boat that’s moving or the pier.” Jamie, along with many others, have noticed the first marks of a potentially seismic transformation of Scottish politics. However, on closer inspection, it seems that nothing has really changed in Scotland.

To the left…

Last year, Neil Findlay, an opponent of Jim Murphy’s in the Scottish Labour leadership election and the undisputed preference of the unions, saw the writing on the wall when he wrote that to counteract the continuing rise of the SNP, Labour needed to reposition itself firmly on the left of the SNP. The Scottish Labour party failed to do this quite spectacularly, and has continually been outflanked on the left by a party whose policies have, perhaps more than any other, mirrored the fluid opinions of the electorate in its desire to be a catch-all institution. In doing so, the SNP have moved decidedly left, a process began before last year’s independence referendum, but markedly sped up under the leadership of Nicola Sturgeon.

In this election, the Scottish electorate are simply doing what they have done for generations – voted for a populist party with a leftist or centre-left agenda. After Scottish Labour’s failure to follow the SNP’s movement to the left, it has been abandoned by a large number of it’s staple supporters for whom the name of the party is less important than the policies they espouse. In failing to recognise this and depending on the ties of tradition and habit to win them yet another election north of the border, the Labour Party have misunderstood the core principal of elections in Scotland –  the majority of the population inhabits the political left and will support the party that joins them.

Perhaps the greatest example of the Scottish Labour party’s misunderstanding of this principle was their appointment of Jim Murphy as leader, a New Labour Blairite. Tony Blair’s reputation now rivals Margaret Thatcher’s in the volume of ire and abhorrence it provokes in the Scottish electorate. As such, Murphy has suffered due to his close association with the former Prime Minister. Indeed, Murphy has experienced the notoriety of having a lower approval rating than Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson.

Yellow is the new red

It is clear to most, including Jim Murphy, that this election is lost for the Scottish Labour Party. May 7 will most likely see Scotland elect over fifty SNP MP’s to Westminster, and the aftermath may well lose Murphy the support of his superiors in London. So what can the Scottish Labour party do to fix the problem they have seemingly created for themselves?  First on the list of possibilities must be to follow the advice of Neil Findlay, and the wishes of the majority of the Scottish electorate – they must return to the left, and quickly. Only then will they have a chance of regaining their power north of the border and of ditching the unfortunate new label of ‘Red Tories’ given to them by the thousands of ex-Labour supporters who feel betrayed by their entrenchment at the centre of British politics.

For now, it seems like neither the boat or the pier is moving, but only the colour of the banner on the mast which has changed. Yellow, it seems, is the new red.

Words by Daniel Rueben Comiskey 

Picture by: Labour Party

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