Doubting whether Corbyn will turn around Scottish Labour, Daniel Kenealy nonetheless sees a way forward.
Many believe that the election of Corbyn should turn the tide of Scottish Labour’s fortunes. The party has witnessed a devastating collapse in support since the independence referendum, losing all but one of its 41 MPs at the May 2015 general election. The story of Labour’s decline in Scotland has, by now, been quite well analysed. The Scottish electorate stopped listening to it, but why? The answer is a complex one that blends short-term dynamics with longer-term ones, and that mixes SNP pull factors and Labour push factors.
It was Labour that established the Scottish Parliament in 1999 and emerged as the most powerful political force in this new political landscape, leading coalition governments for eight years. But, having created Holyrood, Labour had no narrative about the purpose of devolution. Through its years in office it failed to cultivate a reputation for competent government. In parallel, UK Labour, of which Scottish Labour was so often seen – and often treated – as a mere branch office, was moving firmly to the right in government.
The SNP was all-too-happy to step into the vacuum. Following the first Holyrood elections, it became the political opposition on the devolved political landscape. With the public perception that the SNP was a battler for Scottish interests, an advocate for more powers for Holyrood, and a competent government in waiting, the SNP took office in 2007. In the 2011 Holyrood elections the issue was once again competence, and the SNP triumphed once more, this time with an unthinkable majority.
With defeat in the much anticipated independence referendum, it was understandable many began to wonder if 2011 was the SNP’s high watermark. Alas, it was not. Having been defeated in the voting booths, the SNP won the aftermath. The referendum acted as a catalyst, further territorialising Scottish politics. It brought to the forefront of many voters’ minds the question, ‘who will best defend Scotland’s interests in a devolved UK?’
That Labour joined forces in the referendum campaign with the Tories in ‘Better Together’ served to further alienate many of its identifiers, feeding the notion that the party was ‘Tory-lite’. The referendum also catalysed another trend, namely the SNP’s growing reputation – and it can only be called a reputation, as their record in government does not substantiate it – as the party perceived to be at the heart of progressive politics and social justice.
Attitudes data reveal SNP supporters are more to the left (although not markedly so) than Scottish Labour supporters, which creates a puzzle. Why are voters with left-wing attitudes backing a party that has introduced so few progressive, left-wing policies in government? The answer is that, in politics, perception and narrative matter just as much as policy.
Scottish Labour’s challenge now is a complicated one. Partially, as Kezia Dugdale has pointed out, it has to gain the ear of the electorate again. But beyond this are some more concrete requirements. First, it has to regain a reputation for competence – often very difficult to do as an opposition party. Second, it must convince the electorate it has sufficient autonomy to do what a majority believes the SNP does – stand up for Scotland’s interests within Britain. Third, and perhaps most tricky, is it has to understand the dynamics of Scottish social attitudes and public opinion, and craft policy accordingly. So let’s call it the CAP (Competence, Autonomy, Policy) challenge. Will Corbyn have an impact? Probably less of an impact than many might think, or hope.
On competence it is really for Dugdale and her Holyrood frontbenchers to do the hard work. If Corbyn continues to preside over a shadow cabinet riven with disagreement, and a broader parliamentary party containing many who would rather see him deposed, then he may do a rather bizarre service to Scottish Labour in making them positively competent by comparison.
But that is hardly the impact Labour supporters are hoping for. Dugdale needs to get Scottish Labour focused on recruiting articulate, creative, and ambitious candidates for Holyrood. If that cannot be done in time for 2016 then she should start at the grassroots with the 2017 local elections and build from there. Ultimately, the perception of competence will return to Scottish Labour through a mixture of SNP mistakes, new Scottish Labour talent, and a clear and coherent message from Scottish Labour.
On autonomy, Corbyn has said of Dugdale, ‘She’s the boss’. The greatest service he can do for Scottish Labour is to act as if he means that. The early signs are positive but the work must continue. Dugdale’s vision of Scottish Labour in which grassroots members, working through local parties, can develop policy is the right vision. But how the Scottish Policy Forum interacts with the National Policy Forum remains a thorny issue.
The facile notion that Corbyn’s socialism will speak directly to many more people in Scotland than it will in the rest of the UK simply has no basis in the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey. Indeed, a good working hypothesis is that many are supporting the SNP because it makes them feel as though they are supporting progressive principles without having to make any of the sacrifices that go with it.
The job of positioning Scottish Labour should fall to Dugdale, not Corbyn. If it does not then Scottish Labour will be failing their autonomy challenge. What Scottish Labour needs to do is develop a clear narrative that both encapsulates the policy failures of the SNP and, at the same time, begins to put the case for Scottish Labour.
I am no political strategist but, for what it is worth, the message should be about the SNP being all style and no substance when it comes to progressivity, equality, and fairness, and Labour is where the authenticity is. This should be coupled with a new and open mode of policymaking that harnesses much of the enthusiastic energy uncorked by the independence referendum.
What of other forces on the left of Scottish politics? It remains too early to say exactly what Corbyn’s impact will be. The empirical data simply does not give us the basis to reach any firm conclusions. However, it’s hard to see Corbyn having much impact here. The polling evidence suggests new movements such as RISE (Respect, Independence, Socialism, Environmentalism), and the more established Solidarity Scotland, are failing to break through in any significant way, and the notion of a Syriza-style coup is fanciful. Given that the British Election Study confirms that those on the far left were the ones most disappointed with the referendum result, it is hard to see the unionist Corbyn attracting them.
The Scottish Greens remain a different proposition with polls suggesting they could snatch several list seats from Scottish Labour. Their leader, Patrick Harvie, continues to be a well-regarded figure although anecdotal evidence suggests that Corbyn’s leadership has proven attractive to Green party supporters in England. A similar dynamic could be replicated in Scotland; it’s too early to tell.
Scottish Labour faces many challenges and must play a long game if it is to govern again from Holyrood. The challenges are not impossible to meet but, as Scottish Labour begins the task, it may be advisable to proceed largely ignoring the unpredictable, and potentially short-lived, Corbyn factor.
Daniel Kenealy is a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh’s Academy of Government.