Winning the next Scottish election: a tough task for Labour

Labour may have been on the winning side in the referendum, but the polls taken since polling day have not made happy reading for the party.

Labour may have been on the winning side in the referendum, but the polls taken since polling day have not made happy reading for the party

One poll conducted immediately after the referendum by Survation suggested that if a Scottish Parliament election were to be held now only 33 per cent would vote for it on the constituency ballot, just one point above what the party secured on the occasion of its calamitous defeat in 2011.

The SNP in contrast were put on 49 per cent, which would be enough for the nationalists to win another overall majority in the Edinburgh institution.

Another poll a fortnight later, this time from Panelbase, reckoned just 27 per cent would vote for the party on the constituency and on the regional ballot (on which the party won just 27 per cent in 2011).

True, this poll was not quite such good news for the SNP, but at 42 per cent and 37 per cent on the constituency and the regional vote respectively the nationalists were still placed well ahead.

However, this weak position has little to do with the referendum – even though around in three of those who voted for Labour in 2011 ignored the party’s advice and voted Yes. Campaigning alongside the Conservatives for a No vote has not necessarily proven toxic for the party in the way many nationalists had hoped and many Labour activists feared.

Survation asked people on a regular basis through the last eight months of the referendum campaign how they would vote in a Scottish Parliament election. The party’s support on the constituency vote was always estimated at no more than between 31 per cent and 34 per cent.

Panelbase last ascertained Scottish Parliament voting intentions as long ago as January. But that poll too put Labour’s regional vote at just 27 per cent, although on that occasion the constituency vote was a little healthier at 32 per cent. This pair of figures was not untypical of what the company reported on a regular basis throughout 2012 and 2013.

In short Labour entered the referendum campaign still looking about as weak as it had done in 2011. It has simply emerged at the end with no sign of having secured any recovery in its fortunes.

Part of the explanation for Labour’s difficulties lies in the fact that Scottish Parliament elections have proven to be much rockier terrain for the party than it had ever anticipated. From the earliest days of devolution, voters have been more willing to vote SNP – and thus less likely to back Labour – than they are in a Westminster election.

In those very same Survation and Panelbase post-referendum polls that put the party’s Scottish Parliament support so low, the party’s Westminster rating stood at 39 per cent and (an admittedly still far from healthy) 32 per cent respectively.

Voters ask themselves a rather different question in a Scottish Parliament election than they do at a Westminster one. In the latter they ask themselves who would be best at governing Britain as a whole. In the former they are focused far more on which would be best for Scotland. And on that criterion the SNP always come out on top.

For example, in the most recent Panelbase poll, no less than 55 per cent say that they trust the current SNP First Minister, Alex Salmond, to look after Scotland’s interests, while almost as many (54 per cent) say the same of his likely successor, Nicola Sturgeon. In contrast, only 37 per cent trust the current Scottish Labour leader, Johann Lamont..

It is probably always going to be impossible for Labour to close this gap entirely. A party that only aspires to represent Scotland is always going to have an advantage when it comes to voters’ perceptions of which party has Scotland closer to its heart.

Nevertheless, the party needs to appreciate that Scots are looking to their devolved parliament to promote and defend Scotland’s interests. They are not necessarily interested in the prospect of a partnership between (a Labour) Edinburgh and (a Labour) London, the vision that many in the party would often seem to prefer to promote. Scottish Labour has to show it puts country, not party, first.

But the party also needs to set about the task of dealing with the more immediate reasons for the collapse in its support in 2011. They can be summed up in two words – personnel and policy.

The party needs first of all to demonstrate it has the courage and the ability to develop its own policy platform. Before 2011 the party had questioned the wisdom of two of the 2007-11 minority SNP administration’s signature policies, free university tuition and a freeze on the council tax. But then on the eve of the election it did a volte face on both issues and backed them in its manifesto.

Since then in a much quoted speech in September 2012 Johann Lamont has again questioned the fairness of providing universal free services such as free prescriptions and free bus passes for older people. But two years on from having raised the issue, we have still be told what she thinks might the possible policy implications of this outlook. In the meantime the SNP have eagerly created their own (adverse) portrayal of what it might mean.

Secondly, the party needs to prove that it has the people with the talent needed to provide Scotland with effective government. When the Scottish Parliament was established 15 years ago, every single senior member of the SNP, including its existing MPs, opted to serve in the new institution.

In contrast, already well ensconced at Westminster, few senior Labour politicians stood for the new institution. Moreover, some of the few that did, including most tragically Donald Dewar, ended up serving for all too short a time.

As a result there is something of a talent gap between the SNP and the Labour front benches at Holyrood in the eyes of many voters, a gap not made any better by the fact that a number of the party’s spokespersons lost their seats in 2011. New talent has of course emerged amongst those first elected in 2011, but they arguably still have much to learn.

But quite how the party can ensure that it has a credible team in 2016 is far from clear. There is little sign that those occupying the Labour benches at present are inclined to make room for newcomers at any time soon. In truth, winning the next Scottish Parliament election looks like a much tougher task for Labour than was winning the referendum.

John Curtice is Professor of Politics, Strathclyde University

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2 Responses to “Winning the next Scottish election: a tough task for Labour”

  1. swat

    As often happens, Labour has taken the Scots Vote for granted. Its good that they are not prepared to accept that situation any longer., and are saying: convince us.

  2. Leon Wolfeson

    It’s what you get under FPTP.

    That’s the real issue here, afaik.

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