As I have noted previously, Labour’s slump has been a long time coming. There have been hints of an impending SNP (or at least anti-Labour) breakthrough going back decades. Indeed, you could argue that it already happened in 2007 when the SNP went into government.
But there has always been a sense that Labour was holding steady in Scotland. So there is something shocking about the sudden nature of the Scottish Labour collapse. What has caused what appears to be an irreversible cultural shift?
There are lots of romantic, wistful, rose-tinted tales about how Labour is a shadow of its former self. The theory goes that Scots are turning to the SNP in search of the Labour party they used to vote for.
But if you seek some substance to back this idea up, you start to hit the buffers.
Many are pinpointing Tony Blair, the Iraq war and Blairism in general as the source of Labour’s Scottish malaise. But this doesn’t explain why this reaction against Labour would take place long after Tony Blair departed.
Nor does it explain why Labour increased its share of the vote in Scotland in 2010. Nor does it explain why Mr Blair’s government always got a bigger vote share in Scotland than the rest of the UK. Nor does it explain why Mr Blair was the man whose Labour party famously wiped out the Tories in Scotland in 1997.
For Nicola Sturgeon, the last decent Labour leader was Michael Foot. The Labour party has had many popular leaders in Scotland. But Mr Foot certainly was not one of them. He led the Labour party to the lowest vote share in Scotland it has had at any time since 1931.
If 2015 is going to be remarkable for the massive landslide towards the SNP, 2010 looks just as remarkable in retrospect for the fact that there were no seat changes at all. If Labour’s decline has been in the making since Neil Kinnock took over from Michael Foot, the Scottish electorate has been remarkably shy at showing it.
Historical voting patterns in Scotland
This graph shows how popular Labour has been in Scotland relative to the whole of the UK. This tracks the ratio of Labour’s vote share in Scotland to that of the UK as a whole. When the line is above 1, Labour was more popular in Scotland than the rest of the UK.
As you can see, the idea that Labour is inherently more popular in Scotland is a relatively recent phenomenon. In fact, it looks like Labour has only truly been especially popular in Scotland during two periods: while Margaret Thatcher led the Conservative party, and when Gordon Brown led the Labour party.
Indeed, the 2010 election saw Scottish Labour put in its best performance relative to the rest of the UK. Just five years on, Labour is dead set to deliver its worst Scottish results.
When Scots decide to support a political party, they go all in. In the 19th century, the Liberals routinely scooped up 70%–80% of Scotland’s votes. The Conservatives and Unionists clinched a majority of Scotland’s votes in 1951. Believe it or not, Labour has never achieved that feat in Scotland — but it has been the dominant force in UK general elections for the past 50 years.
The SNP looks set to become the fourth political party in the past century to be “dominant” in Scotland. It could do what the Liberals and the Conservatives did, but Labour never did — gain a majority of Scotland’s votes.
So why now?
In the context of historical voting patterns, and following the research showing that policies are playing little role in Scots’ voting choices, it is tempting to wonder if Scottish voters simply tend to follow the crowd. Following the effective campaigning during the independence referendum, it may be that a tipping point was reached and a bandwagon effect began.
But why away from Labour and towards the SNP?
There is potentially a particularly sinister explanation as to why Labour’s popularity soared in Scotland under Gordon Brown and slumped under Ed Miliband. But despite the rising tide of nationalism, I would prefer to think it is not the case.
So what else?
Punishment for decades of complacency
It is a sad fact that Labour have taken Scotland for granted for too long. At times, parts of Scotland have felt like one big rotten borough.
The Labour party appears to have a problem with career politicians, cronies, and others who want to prestige of being a parliamentarian while putting in the minimum amount of effort possible. They haven’t been knocking on doors. They know nothing about their voters.
It is a party that seems to have forgotten how to campaign. It’s the sort of party that if you ask the party leader a question he runs into a sandwich shop and hides.
Labour has always relied on its normal tactic of scaring Scots with the prospect of a Conservative government. This, I think, is why the SNP has done well in the previous two Scottish parliament elections while Labour was able to hold steady in UK general elections. It is also why Labour has lost a few high-profile by-elections, only to win the seats straight back at the following general election.
But 2015 is the election where that threat — of voting for anyone other than Labour and getting a Tory government — began to ring hollow.
So it’s easy to see why, when a tipping point has been reached, Labour is beginning to haemorrhage votes. But why would those votes necessarily go to the SNP?
Labour have played into the nationalists’ agenda for decades
In the SNP, the Scottish electorate feel like there is a viable alternative. The SNP are expert campaigners. And the public perception is that they have been competent in charge of the Scottish government.
But more to the point, Labour’s own campaigning over several decades has played right into the nationalists’ agenda.
In the 1980s, for short term tactical reasons, Scottish Labour began to blame the Conservatives for all of Scotland’s ills. That line of argument has got Labour by from election to election for 30 years.
But with each passing election, it also served to create the idea of Scottish exceptionalism. Labour were telling Scotland’s voters that Scotland was fundamentally different.
With the SNP using the same line of argument, it has gradually become a truism — and one that plays right into the SNP’s hands.
The voters have simply taken Labour’s line to its logical conclusion. After all, if a Conservative government is so bad, and Scottish voters are so different, why wouldn’t they go it alone?
Labour have brought this whole mess upon themselves with their dreadful short-term thinking, lacklustre campaigning and lack of a vision of their own.
This is also why Jim Murphy’s general election campaign has belly-flopped so spectacularly. Instead of presenting a vision of what a Labour government could achieve in the UK, Mr Murphy has sought to out-nationalist the nationalists.
If you were going to vote for a party based on their nationalist rhetoric, why would you go for Labour’s brand of nationalism if you can get the real deal from the SNP?
If you supposedly oppose a point of view, you cannot do so by making out that that point of view is sort of right. If independence is a bad idea, say so! If nationalism as a nasty ideology, oppose it!
You see the same logic in the way the major parties pander to Ukip by adopting Ukip-lite policies. If I could ban one political cliche it would be this: “I understand your concerns”.
If you oppose a point of view, you must not legitimise it by claiming that it is sort-of right. You must instead argue against it, vociferously.
Why I won’t vote for Labour
I have never voted Labour before. (I have at least given an SNP candidate one of my preferences in a local government election, but never Labour.) But I have to admit, I have considered voting for Labour this time round.
With the rising tide of nationalism, the temptation to vote tactically has been strong. In my constituency of Dundee West, the Labour candidate is the only realistic alternative to the SNP.
From a UK-wide perspective, I have actually been surprised and impressed with the Labour party’s campaign. Contrary to expectations, Ed Miliband has grown into the leadership role at just the right time.
Moreover, Labour have made probably the most eye-catching policy announcement of the campaign: the abolition of non-dom status. Whether it makes money for the treasury or not seems irrelevant — and it’s not often you’ll catch me saying that. Some things just seem wrong. Non-dom status is one of those things. With this policy, Labour signalled that they were prepared to do something that is right.
Unfortunately, their anti-immigration rhetoric has left a sour taste in the mouth. And there is still a suspicion that they would do a worse job of managing the economy than the incumbent coalition government (although I also think a government’s ability to control the economy is wildly overrated).
And when it comes down to it, I simply oppose the Labour party’s authoritarian instinct just as much as I detest the SNP’s authoritarian policies.
Moreover, given that the Labour party would most likely form a coalition with the SNP were it to gain power, it seems like a perverse way of opposing the SNP. If anything is going to put the SNP in power, it will be more Labour MPs.