The Tories are within 4 points of Scottish Labour. What a time to try to “outflank the SNP from the left”

by Rob Marchant

Uncut has not spoken much about Scotland recently but, as the gaze of Britain’s political machine turns briefly northwards, as it does every four years, that will change.

It is right that it will, and this time it should not be brief. This is not just because the Holyrood elections are almost upon us. It is because Labour’s short-to-medium-term success, and perhaps its very survival, depends on a Scottish turnaround.

Why? Let’s just look at the basic electoral arithmetic. As Lewis Baston pointed out in an outstanding analysis at LabourList, because of its wipeout in Scotland, Labour needs a bigger swing than it had in the 1997 general election to win in 2020.

That is, a bigger swing even than its best-ever post-war result.

It would be a tall order for a party even at the height of its popularity and which had not for the last five years neglected swing seats in the South East which it had won in 1997 and needed to win again.

And this was all chasing the frankly imbecilic notion that it could squeeze into power on the back of a leftish “progressive majority”, consisting of discontented Lib Dem and Green voters turning towards Labour.

Now consider a party which, on top of that, has its most unpopular leader since records began.

It is not merely a tall order. It is impossible. It is difficult to overestimate the extent to which Labour’s comfortable hegemony in Scotland has provided Labour’s electoral safety net during its postwar opposition years. We are now living a historical anomaly for Labour.

Even in 2025, a Labour party which is still suffering from this devastating weakness in Scotland could not compete. Even in the unlikely event that it could do so, to win so many swing seats in the South East would require a rightward repositioning of the party which would make New Labour look like a Trotskyite cabal.

Ergo, there is only one real way forward for Labour. It must win back the Scotland it has lost, seat by seat and house by house.

It has not started well.

Yes, it is true that Kezia Dugdale has probably the most difficult job in the Labour Party right now. She has to rebuild a party that has suffered, less than a year ago, the political equivalent of a nuclear attack.

Yes, the 1p income tax rise announced yesterday is probably neither here nor there in financial terms, but as a symbol it is potent.

Although there is a new freedom coming into play from 6 April, Scotland has, of course, been able to vary income tax by up to 3% since devolution. There is also a reason why Scottish governments have been highly reluctant to use that power.

Tax-raising governments tend to be unpopular. Oppositions going into an election proposing to do so tend not to get elected. Who knew?

Actually, we all knew. The evidence is there from British general elections going back many decades, as commented before at Uncut. In fact, by 2015 even Ed Miliband had rowed back from his mid-term tax-raising hints, when he saw how badly they had gone down with voters.

Worse, it is not just that the policy is flawed and will not convince voters. It shows a lack of understanding of the game plan with the SNP.

After a wipeout at the polls, it seems we still don’t get them. Used to centuries of bipartisan politics, it seems that we don’t yet get the phenomenon of a successful, major nationalist party.

The SNP is not a left-wing party that we have to outflank. It is a populist party which will tack left or right according to the situation, in order to win what for it are far greater prizes: nationalist concessions, further devolution or even independence.

Labour could learn a lot from the Catalan CiU in Spain, possibly the most successful such party in Europe, which constructed a near-hegemony in its regional parliament over the best part of forty years. It did so by being most centrist and also by being fairly cautious (the move towards independence is a very recent phenomenon, as it is in Scotland). In addition, it united the Catalans by winding them up into a frenzy of suspicion about the central government in Madrid.

Knowing that, it is fairly clear what will happen. It will not be an effective weapon, trying to make the SNP look stingy. It will tack right, position itself as the sensible guardian of Scotland’s finances against a reckless, high-spending Labour Party. And with Jeremy Corbyn at its helm, and John McDonnell as its finance chief nationally, it will scarcely have a hard job convincing voters of that argument.

In short, Labour has just walked its Scottish goalkeeper out of the penalty area and said “go ahead. Shoot.”

Today’s TNS poll, which has the Tories within 4 points of Labour while the SNP are a dizzying 36 points ahead, is hardly a surprise although no less alarming for it.

Labour has really had only one strategic priority this year in electoral terms, which was to start to win back Scotland from the SNP so it might have a chance in 2025, not 2020. Not to mention clip the SNP’s wings as regards independence.

But it will not happen this way. It will not.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left

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16 Responses to “The Tories are within 4 points of Scottish Labour. What a time to try to “outflank the SNP from the left””

  1. Mike Homfray says:

    Usual nonsense from Marchant, who really should have left the party and done us all a favour by now.
    The SNP appeal is to do with one single issue. Independence. Anything else is secondary
    We don’t believe in independence. Eventually, the appeal of this single issue may wane, but at the moment, its much more about an emotional pull towards this factor above all others – its not a rational thing.
    It matters not what we say, what policies we have, who our leader is. Until the Scots either decide that they really do want independence or emerge from the religious cult-like spell of the SNP, we won’t do well
    But if you seriously think the corrupt right wing machine politics of the vile Murphy and his acolytes (that was one of the few pleasures of the last election, watching that worm lose his seat) is the answer, you are as wrong about that as you are about everything else. Labour is positioning for a post SNP future, should one exist – as a left wing party. Being a populist nationalist centre party isn’t possible, because thats what the SNP are. Just like being a right wing party isn’t possible in England and Wales, because thats the Tories territory. And ths Scots unfortunately remember Labour in power, and those memories are not positive….

  2. swatantra says:

    Its the kick in the backside that Labour really needed.
    Too long arrogant, too long complacent, taking the votes for granted.
    I’ve never been in favour of a One Party Rule. Ever. That defies Democracy itself. We need Oppositions to keep Govts on their toes and accountable Perhaps its Labour’s turn to provide an effective Opposition, in Scotland to the SNP. But God knows how they will do it when the National Party itself is in disastrous turmoil, and meltdown.
    I think the Tories will over reach themselves; you can already sense it in their arrogance at Westminster. And that will be the harbinger of their downfall.
    The best bet for Labour would be for it to accept that the Scots will get their Independence. Only then an a social democratic Party achieve power in Scotland just as in Scandinavia.

  3. paul barker says:

    1p on income Tax doesnt seem that far Left to me, it was already Libdem policy in Scotland & has been proposed at Westminster level in the past. I think you are ignoring the clear polling evidence that SNP voters believe the SNP to be to the Left of Labour, disabusing them of that illusion is surely part of chipping away at the Nationalists glamour ?

  4. Tafia says:

    Labour have lost Scotland for a generation and probably for ever. Doesn’t matter who runs it, what it’s policies are or where it positions itself. When it joined with the Tories in the joint platform ‘Better Together’ it basically shot itself and sealed it’s own fate. Tories are despised in Scotland. People who stand alongside Tories are equally despised. Making the Blairte Murphy the head was an act of pure fuck-wittery and the Scots saw that as an insult and quite rightly so.

    Even Kezia Dugdale has expressed that Scottish Labour needs to become it’s own separate party, with it’s own policies concentrating on Scotland above all and not look to London or it will never recover.

    And the SNP are neither left, centre or right. They are something new to UK politics – north european/scandanavian model social democrats.

  5. Chris C says:

    The theme of this blog is largely: Scottish Labour needs to get back to being an MP farm for UK Labour by pinching Tory votes because Labour has never figured out how to be popular in England. Get a grip.

    First Scotland is just 59 out of 650 MPs.
    Second, and contrary to popular opinion in England, the SNP is positioned in the dead centre and has a long history of small ‘c’ conservatism. It opposed the minimum wage, for example. To “outflank from the left” requires only a baby step to the left of centre.

    Politics isn’t about just getting elected. Its about getting elected with and because of a plan that will genuinely improve the lot of the majority of the people. That is what the 1p tax is about. Kez is rebuilding Scottish Labour from the ground up. And centre/soft left Labour elsewhere in the UK would do well to follow the example.

    McDonnell or no McDonnell, UK Labour has to be seen as economically competent. Kez’s policy helps this because it addresses the much larger deficit that exists in Scotland compared to England. The ‘deficit’ gap will become a serious complaint for voters in England who are currently funding it. UK Labour can point out that Scottish Labour is trying to do something about that. Tackling difficult economic issues responsibly. You know, competently?

    In response to the Union defeatists in the comments – pleae give yourself a shake. I live in Scotland and campaigned hard for a ‘No’. I by no means take it for granted that Scotland will become independent. Kez is doing exactly what is necessary to point out the BS in the SNP position. The EU referendum is going to be another chance to hammer home the value of international co-operation and political integration – something the SNP paradoxically supports. Cracks will appear in the SNP edifice soon enough.

    We just need the UK Labour centre/soft left to get its act together. Fast.

  6. Now more than ever, the Scottish party needs to take a neutral stand on Scottish independence. A similar attitude to the EU referendum wouldn’t hurt either.

    Just to remind Rob, Scotland was lost by its right wing Labour MPs who thought it was their right to have a seat up there. Douglas Alexander totally misplayed the referendum campaign and then was allowed to do the same with last year’s general election.

  7. Madasafish says:

    Tafia says ” Tories are despised in Scotland”

    Latest opinion polls: Tories 20%, Labour 20%..

    So are Labour it seems.

  8. Tafia says:

    Madas – hence the sentence straight after – “People who stand alongside Tories are equally despised”. And now they are equal in the polls.

    Laboiur should never have got involved in ‘Better Together’ – it should as a party have remained neutral and let it’s members decide for themselves. A huge amount of both Labour members and Labour voters supported ‘Yes’ – and Labour doing what it did alienataed them. Forever.

    Labour did that by choice, therefore it must have not only factored in the consequences, but have been willing to accept them.

    Corbyn’sLabour might be a cult, but what Labour did during IndyRef and then appointing Murphy, makes Scottish Labour little better than a suicide cult.

  9. James says:

    Scottish Politics is a bit broken at the moment, you may have noticed. We know full well the SNP are attacking us from the centre, Kez knows it – we all know it, you don’t need to tell us.

    However, what Kez has done is finally managed to drag the debate at least partially away from constitutional affairs and identity politics. It’s not just the SNP’s policies we’re now grappling with it’s the growing “Ulsterisation” of Scotland and part of it comes from the SNP delusion that “England is right wing and Scotland is left wing”. Kez has thrown down the challenge to the SNP: “Prove it”. The SNP now have to somehow keep their middle class sweeteners in place, along with the massive cuts that come with it, and still try and convince the people of Scotland they’re somehow “different”, and morally superior and to the left than the people of England.

    And you know what? A chink in the SNP and Nationalist armor has been exposed. SNP voters and Yes campaigners are now openly campaigning against a MODERATE redistributive policy, what amounts to a very minor tax rise for middle Scotland and campaigning to keep John Swinney’s huge cuts. The SNP and Yessers find themselves campaigning on a platform of low taxes, reduced services.

    This policy, at least from where I’m sat, isn’t designed to win the 2016 election. Kez knows it’s near impossible – but it’s a clear challenge to the SNP and “Yes” narrative. It’s playing the long game.

  10. Bruce Hosie says:

    I always have a little giggle when I come on here, Labour members in the main don’t get what has happened to them in Scotland. It was not just Better Together and you standing toe to toe with the Conservatives that has resulted in you becoming a toxic party. That was but a small part of it.

    You have taken Scotland and Scottish votes for grnated for far too long, you ran and still continue to run a few Scottish Councils like they are your playground. You adopted Conservative policies down south assuming that Scottish voters would just vote for you anyway. You brought in PFI in Scotland that we will be paying for long after I am gone. Too many of you still make stupid comments like Scottish voters are involved in a cult if they vote SNP, Scottish voters are all nationalists if they voted yes, the SNP is a one party state blah blah blah.

    Do any of you actually know what one party state actually means. You just don’t get it. Labour are terminal in Scotland because of the above and the fact that you are the red tories. You abandoned Scotland during the Smith Commission and you continue to have zero ambition even today. When you should be standing up for Scotland at Westminster around the Scotland Act you anstain and tsand with Tories, what don’t you get. Like my own party, the Liberal Democrats, you have brought this on yourselves with your own narrow minded view of what Scotland wants and needs. The Union as it is is dead, now I admit I am a yes voting Liberal, but the only thing that will save this UK that you value so much is a proper Federal UK with PR. Anything less will result in independence in my lifetime, the UK has maybe 5 years to sort out the constitution or you will see the break up of this country.

    I cannot believe that so many of you are still burying your head in the sand, as I said, like my own party you are on the cusp of being wiped out and I don’t think many in Scotland will miss you in any shape or form.

  11. Stephen W says:

    Kezia’s 1p tax rise isn’t going to win many votes off the SNP but it will hopefully kill this nonsense about the SNP being the ‘true left-wing party’ stone dead forever. That may be the start of giving Labour a chance to take the SNP in 2020 and 2021. That’s the timeline they need to be thinking on. 2016 is long since lost. But they can start manouvering to improve their position for the next round of elections.

  12. Stephen W says:

    That said, this article is already out of date. Today’s Yougov has the Tories in a dead heat with Labour on 20% each.

  13. John P Reid says:

    Mike Homfray why are you suggesting someone leave the party and do us ‘all’ a favour, although you leaving the party 12 years ago ,didn’t prevent us from winning the 2005 election,I’m sure no one noticed

    The SNP who talk tough,cut hard, and paul barker,remind me how well the Fib dems are doing,

  14. Henrik says:

    Friends, if Labour are depending on a turnaround in Scotland, they’re going to have a long wait – especially as the Union’s effectively dead; the English will kill it off in the next ten years. I think most English people grasped from the referendum campaign and from the rather unpleasant open racism so freely on display that there are significant numbers of Scots nationalists who hate them. Fine. Oil’s $30 a barrel, off you go, don’t let the door hit you in the arse on the way out, Jock. If the Out campaign was fuelled by emotion and romanticism, you just wait until peak English irritation. That’s the SNP strategy, of course, although the oil price collapse has probably made them rethink it a bit. Too late, to my mind.

    That means Labour is going to have to hold its nose and actually try to develop some policies which will make many more English folk minded to vote for them. Or not, your call – if you prefer the splendid isolation of ideological purity, fine by me, but then I’m not a Labour voter.

    What does concern me is that you guys are meant to be HM Opposition. That doesn’t just mean shouting ‘Tory Scum’ or reading out letters from Stan in Watford and Gurrum in Bradford at PMQs, it means developing that alternative narrative.

  15. Caracatus says:

    The author doesn’t seem to understand that tacking to the right is not a winning strategy either, certainly it will hand Scotland to the SNP for a long time, and probably lead to both independence and the end of Labour hope in England.

    Blairism was based on people having nowhere else to go, well now they do, from SNP to UKIP.

    The real solution is to support electoral reform and embrace pluralism – that would be a change for 100 years of Labour Party thinking – but it’s that or continued irrelevance. FPTP worked to Labour advantage for years in electing MPs but it hollowed it out a party and led to its collapse.

  16. Jams O'Donnell says:

    Never has the acronym “LOL” been so appropriate.

    3rd party in Scotland now – how long before it’s 4th?

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