Will Scottish Labour learn from their past mistakes and be able to oust the SNP in the next election?
“The change Scotland needs” is the current motto of Scotland’s Labour Party. Currently, there are 22 Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) from Scottish Labour, led by Anas Sarwar. In the House of Commons, the party holds only two out of 59 Scottish seats. The party’s manifesto covers important causes such as providing housing, education, and social insurance, and promoting economic and climate recovery.
The Scottish Labour Party was a pioneer and leading voice for devolution in Scotland, supporting the cause prior to the 1997 referendum. In the end, the Scottish Labour Party emerged as the winners of the first Scottish Parliament elections in 1999, and again in 2003.
In the subsequent Scottish Parliament elections in 2007 and 2011, Labour came second, losing by just one seat to the Scottish National Party (SNP) in 2007. However, in the most recent elections in 2016 and 2021, it has found itself in the third position behind the SNP and the Scottish Conservatives.
Donald Dewar was the inaugural First Minister of Scotland, elected in 1999. Dewar was best known for his advocacy for devolution and his leadership of Scottish Labour. His successors, Henry McLeish and Jack McConnell, set to work on the core values of the Labour party, which included bolstering the welfare state and pioneering equalities legislation. However, the party would go from running Holyrood, to ultimately running out of luck. Even during its peak years, the Labour party was impaired by controversies and allegations. Dewar was criticised for the astonishingly high cost (£414 million) of the Holyrood building, and beyond devolution his political career as a Scottish leader had been average; his work on policies and agendas minimal.
More recently, Labour’s cross-party “Better Together” campaign in the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum was deemed to be “poorly designed” and did not allow for public engagement Its Brexit policy, unpopular leaders, and failure to attract its social base have also been attributed to the party’s decline.
Scottish independence remains a bone in the throat, as Labour remains opposed to another “unnecessary” and “unwanted” referendum. In fact, ahead of the general elections, Labour has been vocal in their criticism of the SNP for disregarding the economic impact of a Scottish independence. With two major elections coming up in 2024 and 2026, in Westminster and Holyrood respectively, there have been questioning glances and mixed hopes about the potential of the Labour party to secure a majority of seats in Scotland. Labour’s current agenda for Scottish governance includes improving public services, amending the minimum wage, creating jobs, and building more houses.
Recent polling results show Labour (30%) to be trailing close behind SNP (40%), giving a glimmer of hope for the party’s potential comeback. Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation from the SNP has also weakened and destabilised the party, making it easier for Labour to strike back. Pro-independence voters, who mostly support the SNP, are also growing restless and impatient. Ipsos finds that about 50% of Scots think the current government is doing a bad job managing the economy. But the party should not get their hopes up just yet – only 29% think Labour would do better, while 23% think Labour would do worse.
Hassan and Shaw, in their book The Strange Death of Labour Scotland, argue that in the process of dedicating themselves to being an opposition to the SNP and the Conservatives, Labour have forgotten their own, personal vision. Ahead of the elections, Labour must gear up and strengthen its own ambitions and goals for a better Scotland, rather than relying on being an alternative to the other political parties. The key to winning and gaining stable ground again is for Labour to revisit its manifestos, maybe even the very first ones, and remember what they were created for and values they represent – those of progressive and positive change.