The first General Election I am old enough to remember in any detail was in 1997. It was a historic election for many reasons but, in the part of the world I come from, it was perhaps most widely celebrated for the complete wipeout of Conservative MPs in Scotland. That night, Labour won 56 out of Scotland’s then total of 72 Westminster seats. Had the ten year old me bothered to form a view on such things, I’m sure I would have thought it a statement of the obvious that Labour would be miles ahead of the Tories in Scotland forevermore.
Fast forward 19 years and look how the picture has changed. For one thing, the Scottish Parliament, which will hold its fifth elections in a week’s time did not yet exist in 1997 – it’s creation being one consequence of that historic 1997 election. For another, Labour in Scotland now finds itself locked in an exceedingly tight battle with the Conservatives. To rub salt in the wound, it is a battle for second place.
The SNP – a distant third back in 1997 with just 22% of the vote and six seats – is now almost lapping the field as it cruises towards a third consecutive term in government in Scotland, consolidating the dominance it showed last year with its near clean-sweep of Westminster seats in Scotland. Polling consistently at over 50% in the constituency vote, Nicola Sturgeon’s party appears well on course to win another majority in Holyrood, the weight of their support defying the proportional electoral system which was supposed to make such outcomes unlikely.
And so the once mighty Scottish Labour finds itself scrapping for the dubious privilege of remaining Scotland’s official opposition. That the Conservatives are in with a shout of second place is not a sign of any great Tory revival north of the border however – they still have only one Scottish MP and current polling places them on 20% at best. Their moderate, affable and staunchly unionist Scottish leader Ruth Davidson polls well personally – far better than any of her Westminster-based colleagues could hope for in Scotland – but this has not precipitated any meaningful uptick in support for her party.
Instead the battle for second place is almost entirely attributable to the steady decline in Labour support, which pre-dates the independence referendum, but was greatly exacerbated by it. The polarising and at times rancorous nature of the referendum saw many once staunchly Labour voters persuaded by the nationalist’s vision of a Scotland forever free of ‘Tory austerity’ and disillusioned by what they saw as ‘collaboration’ by Labour with the ‘hated-Tories’.
Whole books could – and have – been written about the causes of Labour’s decline in Scotland, but suffice to say that the process of restoring the Labour brand in Scotland will not be easy and it will not be quick. Jim Murphy had a brief and unsuccessful go at reviving the party’s fortunes, but the scale of the losses he suffered at last year’s General Election – not least that of his own seat – made his position untenable. For many, Murphy simply carried too much baggage from his days as a ‘Blairite’ member of the last Labour government in Westminster and a high-profile campaigner for a No vote in 2014. Perhaps Murphy’s greatest gift to his young successor, Kezia Dugdale, was the lowering of expectations for what Labour can realistically achieve in Scotland which will mean that, surely, she will at least be given time to turn things around.
Dugdale took on the enormous task in August 2015, stepping up from deputy leader to succeed Murphy at the age of just 33. She is still only at the beginning of what she describes as a five year plan to try to turn things around, but nobody could accuse her of not at least being game. She has been helped by the passage of the Scotland Act which will deliver new tax and welfare powers to Holyrood and the opportunity this has afforded her to create a clear dividing line between her party and the SNP on whether to raise income tax to fund additional investment in public spending.
Burned by accusations that Labour offers a pale imitation of conservatism, Dugdale has sought to change the terms of the debate to instead focus attention on why the supposedly social democratic SNP government is not willing to use the new powers it so-badly wanted to increase tax and reverse spending cuts.
There are signs that Dugdale’s message is at least popular with voters in principle, even if it is not yet translating into any increased popularity for her party. In truth, while she publicly talks of trying to win this election, Dugdale is no doubt playing the long game and hoping that she can lay the foundations which will allow her to make some inroads into the SNP’s dominance over the course of the next Scottish Parliament. She will need to hope that, even if Labour comes third, she is given time to make a difference and that her at times muddled messaging around a second independence referendum does not harm her standing too much within her own party.
There are other interesting aspects to these Scottish elections – the Greens look set to make a significant breakthrough, even UKIP could win a seat and the Lib Dems are locked in an ongoing struggle to find a niche for themselves in a crowded Scottish political landscape.
But with the SNP way out in front and the smaller parties battling for maybe a dozen or so seats between them, it is clear that the only real contest in this election is that between Labour and the Conservatives for second place.
Who would have ever thought it?