Over the past decade, the Labour Party in Scotland has gone from a position of decline to one of decimation. After winning 69 per cent of Westminster seats in 2005, we lost control at Holyrood 2007 and then, following the independence referendum, fell back to a single seat in 2015. In 2016, Labour came third behind the Conservatives, a party until recently so toxic that it was struggling to maintain its credentials as a credible party in Scotland at all.
The process that drove this collapse is complicated, but it began with Scottish Labour’s disconnect from its founding purpose – and, if Kezia Dugdale’s endorsement of Owen Smith is anything to go by, it is one that the leadership of the party still apparently fails to grasp.
On the working class estates and among the community-minded voters that were once Labour’s backbone, a single phrase keeps being heard: “I didn’t leave Labour - Labour left me.” The SNP have not changed the basic values of Scotland’s Labour base, but they have changed the solutions that people believe in.
The SNP has managed to position itself as the common sense centre-left choice, touting free school meals and well-funded public services as central to their ethos. But the truth is that the SNP is not a left-wing party – it is predominantly funded by big business and has maintained a position of reducing corporation tax to undercut the rest of the UK. Before the 2008 crash, Alex Salmond used to talk about Scotland’s post-independence prospects with reference to the “Celtic tiger” – the deregulated low tax model that is now bringing misery to Ireland. Only in a special kind of political void could Scottish nationalism convincingly portray itself as the new, left-wing populism.
Scottish Labour created that void when it became the party of the Scottish political establishment, committed to austerity politics and tainted by the legacy of the Iraq War. Johann Lamont, leader for 3 years until the independence referendum, staked out her ground by opposing free education and universal benefits. Then the party elected Jim Murphy, a figure whose politics lay even further to the right, as leader. As a result, Scottish Labour’s brand has become toxic. When Kezia Dugdale tried to shift to the left of the SNP on tax and spend in 2016, polls found that voters overwhelmingly agreed with her – but only when the policy was presented without Labour’s name attached to it.
This article was originally feature on The Independent