01 February 2010

Whither Scottish Labour?

There are two contrasting pieces on the state of Scottish Labour at the moment, the first by Peter Thomson, which strikes a negative note, and the second by Yousuf which is far more optimistic. The reality, I suspect, is somewhere in between.

And the truth is that the UK opinion poll sub-samples (there's a paucity of actual Scotland-wide opinion polls these days) do make reasonably pleasant reading for Labour, but as Yousuf himself agrees, opinion polls aren't the real gauge: elections are, and Labour can at least point to the Glasgow North East result.

The problem is, even real election results don't help: using them as a campaign tool in subsequent polls "Vote for us, because some people in another seat decided to indulge us for another few months" is a bit of a crappy slogan, much like the underlying message behind those dreadful bar charts: "Vote for us, because we came second last time so have a better chance of beating the other guy". Forget policies, or even personalities. Just stick a graph on your leaflet and all will be well. I'm not singling any particular party out for that either: all parties do it and I wish, I wish, I wish they'd stop. But that's another matter.

The problem with using past results is that it makes you a massive hostage to fortune. Take the LibDems' good run, which was confirmed by the party's second-place showing in Scotland in the 2005 Westminster Elections. It was an impressive set of results: second in seats and in votes, more than a fifth of the vote (the only party besides Labour to manage that) and second in a shedload of other seats (more bar charts, please!). And to improve matters, they won the Dunfermline & West Fife By-Election despite not having a leader. That's not bad. Even in Moray, where they came third, they notched up a 10% increase in their vote. They were "The Party of Real Momentum".

And what happened in 2007? They lost a seat.

By then, momentum had shifted to the SNP, having endured a dismal period of results since 2001 - the loss of Galloway & Upper Nithsdale at Westminster, the catastrophic 2003 results, the grim 2004 European election figures, the fall to third place in 2005, and the embarrassing failure to manage anything major in Glasgow Cathcart, where the events leading up to that By-Election should have made it a gift for the SNP. But with a credible performance in Livingston that same day, a small upward movement in Dunfermline & West Fife (despite coming third), and a consolidation of the party's position in Moray, the SNP was set for 2007. And it delivered: winning a nationwide election for the first time in the party's history, and nearly doubling the number of MSPs it had at dissolution a month previously. After that, the good times kept rolling: Glasgow East, Labour's third-safest seat in Scotland fell to the SNP campaign the following summer. So Glenrothes should have been a walk in the park, right?

Wrong. It stayed Labour. In fact, Labour strengthened on its 2005 position, while the SNP campaign just couldn't translate into a result. So now, surely, it was Labour's turn, 2007 would be exposed as a flash in the pan and first place for Labour was guaranteed going into the European elections.

Except they didn't come first. The SNP did, and in the end, Labour were spinning that they did well to hold onto their two seats and in any case, it was a bad night for the party across the UK. So once again, there were clouds of doom over Labour. David Kerr was a shoo-in to do in Glasgow North East what John Mason had done in the neighbouring constituency.

But he didn't. In fact, the result suggests that what we had was a complete damp squib. Very little of note had changed.

The lesson here, for all of us, is that while we all love to talk about momentum, the reality is that it's a great big steaming mound of BS. You are not as good as your last result. You are only as good as your next. If anything, the pattern is that the SNP do well, then Labour do well, then the SNP have a good result, then it's Labour turn again. By that logic, with the next test of public opinion being the Westminster election, the SNP are going to have a field day, but will need a By-Election to happen at some point between then and the 2011 Holyrood Elections. After Glasgow East, no one has put two good results together. It's not unlike following Wigan Athletic.

So what else can we discern? We know that Jim Devine has been forced out, and that Nigel Griffiths is out the door. We know that Scottish Labour at Westminster will soon be without stalwarts Gavin Strang and John McFall. We know that Anne Moffat is staring ejection in the face. We know that Des Browne, who isn't exactly an old man, has decided that there are better things to do with his time than being an MP. Mohammed Sarwar is standing down. As is Adam Ingram, and Rosemary McKenna. And so is John Reid. That's ten Scottish Labour MPs that we know are leaving out of 39. That is not a good sign.

It's compounded by the fact that MSPs are, for the first time in the case of Scottish Labour, seeking to fill the breach, with Margaret Curran and Cathy Jamieson selected as Labour PPCs in Glasgow East and Kilmarnock & Loudoun respectively, and still the possibility that Jackie Baillie may join them (though it's too early to offer anything more than speculation at this stage). Now Curran's departure actually eases a headache for Labour in Glasgow with there being nine incumbent MSPs but only eight notional Labour constituencies on the new boundaries, but Jamieson's departure creates a selection headache for Labour in Carrick, Cumnock & Doon Valley, and were Baillie to go, the same would be true in Dumbarton.

And worse still, we're not losing small fry, but big hitters: Margaret Curran had been Communities Minister, Parliament Minister and Shadow Health Secretary before the Glasgow East By-Election. She was effectively locked in a darkened room by Iain Gray, but still had Shadow Cabinet status. Cahty Jamieson was a former Education Minister, a former Justice Minister, and the former Deputy Labour Group Leader at Holyrood. And she'd been given the all-important Housing brief until getting her nomination in Killie. That means that the Shadow Cabinet, the government-in-waiting if we're to believe Iain Gray, is being drained, with key players heading for the Westminster backbenches.

So the polls look good, actual results look mixed, but the underlying trend - people wanting to stand and stand again for Labour - is still one of decline. And unless a whole wave of new talent comes forth to fill those voids in less than a year, ready for Holyrood, I'm struggling to see when it'll be arrested.


Not a Village in Westminster said...

An insightful piece there which I think gives a balanced analysis of the situation.

The movement of the key MSPs towards Westminster is a worrying one for Scottish Labour on several grounds. Firstly, as you mention, the drain to an already shallow talent pool leaves significant gaps in Labour's Holyrood team. It is the case for all of the Holyrood parties that they do not have strength in depth - with a relatively small number of MSPs, not all of whom are equal in talent, the parties are left with scant pickings for filling Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet posts. The potential loss of three major Labour figures could therefore impact heavily on the party's chances.

The second implication is that it helps to strengthen the SNP's attack on Scottish Labour as a 'London' party. This has been one of their most successful gambits in disconnecting Labour from the public in Scotland, and the perception that Labour MSPs consider Westminster more important or desirable will only serve to heighten this image.

To succeed the party needs to fight tooth and nail to re-establish a Scottish identity. It is ridiculous that the party who delivered devolution remain the only major party not to have devolved their leadership structure, and I think that this is a important requirement for a Labour fightback. This fightback, however, will be an uphill struggle if there are fewer high quality and recognisable Labour MSPs at Holyrood.

oldnat said...

Politics Home seems to have consigned you and Jeff Breslin to the nether regions of acceptable blogs.

Doubtless because neither of you supports a party that will produce the UKPM (and you're not LD either).

The sole Scotland link in PH now seems to be Blether with Brian. Could it be that they don't see Brian's galluses as a threat to the Union?

Strathturret said...

Yes a good piece.

At a GE Labour will not be able to swamp a constuency with paid staff and union staff (Glenrothes and Glasgow NE). They will need to reply on their volunteers.

Given the likelihood on Labour being in opposition at Westminster, it is odd is it not to see MSP clamouring to become MPs. Or are Jamieson and Curran really interested in foreign or defence matters?

Rats and sinking ship me thinks.

Brownedov said...

Trying to analyse the Scottish scaps of GB-wide polls is almost certain to overstate Labour because of the weighting either by political identification or past voting to attempt to adjust the sample to political demographics. YouGov are more open about their weightings but all use similar methods.

YouGov political identification weightings for GB and Scottish polls of late have been:
  GB, Scotland, Party
  32.0%, 36.0%, Lab
  26.0%, 11.0%, Con
  12.0%, 10.0%, L-D
  3.0%, 16.0%, Other (inc SNP)
  24.5%, 24.5%, None
  2.5%, 2.5%, Don't Know

From the above, you can see that anyone who identifies with the SNP is counted as less than 20% of a vote in a GB poll compared to a whole vote in Scottish samples. Equally, each Scottish Tory counts as nearly 2½ votes in GB polls compared to one vote in a Scottish poll.

Because the unweighted data is never published, we cannot "reverse-engineer" it and are best to ignore it except arguably to look at trends between polls taken on an identical basis, but even then the sample siyes are too small for statistical significance.

Ted Harvey said...

Good stuff Will and can I add a wee bit of contrarian? For many talented and aspiring (young) hopefulls amongst Scottish Labour it must have been daunting and then dispiriting to realise that so many 'top' places were filled on a long-term basis by virtually unmovable ageing bodies.

I'm sure that many will have just joined the haemorrhage and left the Party.

Might not the current movement and leaving of so many MPs and MSPs (and presumably cooncilors) all leave gaps and opportunities for new blood to be re-motivated and come in and exploit? A classic Leninist seizing of opportunity in a period of instability and lack of authority?

Having said all that, the continued intake of some Labour MSPs would suggest that there is no great pool of talent awaiting - I've just read an interview in Holyrood mag with South Lanarkshire MSP James Kelly as in; "there was... a really bad knife murder" (what, you can get good knife murders?) "where a young man was attacked with a knife and left in the middle of the night in a close".

Aye, Jimmy, sure, that's all very articulate stuff pitched at a level equating with the status of a national parliament.

And as a loyal west of Scotland Labour MSP, he'll be in there for a long, long time regardless of what he achieves or does not achieve in what is one of the poorest constituencies in Scotland after the best part of a century of Labour control at MP, MSP and council levels.

So I think that all in all this means Will that I agree with your take on it.