Scottish Labour in 2016: a problem of perception

By Scott Smith

If a week is a long time in politics, a decade must surely be a lifetime. Predicting in 2005 that Labour would have one Scottish seat at Westminster, the SNP 56 and that Labour could lose every constituency seat at Holyrood, you’d probably have been laughed out the door. How, then, have the SNP – a party of government in one form or another for eight years – succeeded in such a rout after so long in power? The answer you receive to this depends heavily upon who you ask. It’s often stated that Scottish Labour’s defeat and – if polls are to be believed – ongoing woes have been a long time coming; however, I’d like to focus on more recent events to contextualise the present issues. On the surface, we appear ‘out-lefted’ by a party which acts – importantly, if subtly – to our right. I believe the data tell a different story; and one to which a happy ending may be substantially more difficult to reach.

Since the referendum, the assertion by the SNP that Labour “sided with the Tories” has become commonplace. On every issue and at every opportunity, Salmond equated criticism of the SNP’s plan for independence to “talking down Scotland”; in criticising the SNP, Labour were no better than the Conservatives, a party hugely unpopular in Scotland for decades. The perception that Yes Scotland consisted solely of the SNP, whilst Better Together consisted of a variety of political persuasions objectively opposed but subjectively ‘in bed’ with one another is one which has allowed the SNP to use words like ‘betrayal’ with reference to Labour. Furthermore, polling of the campaigns (YouGov, Sep 2014) reveal disparity in their perceptions. 60% of those polled perceived the Better Together campaign to be ‘mostly negative’, whilst the same proportion perceived that of Yes Scotland to be ‘mostly positive’. Whilst the SNP’s arguments for independence did not convince a majority to vote in their favour, it could be argued that, throughout, they sowed the seeds of a false dichotomy: that of the SNP versus a glut of unionist parties in pursuit of a better Scotland.

The proximity of the general election to the referendum compounded these issues. The SNP – with its ‘new’ and impressive leader, Nicola Sturgeon – framed itself more strongly than ever before as a party which rejected austerity. However, the IFS analysis of the effects of parties’ economic policies on post-election austerity found that, in reality, the policies outlined in the SNP manifesto would confer similar spending cuts to those proposed by Labour and, indeed, stated that “the SNP’s plans do not necessarily match their anti-austerity rhetoric.” Attempts by Labour to hold the SNP to account for these discrepancies were dismissed as pessimism – the ubiquitous “talking down Scotland” – or met with claims that the IFS’ conclusions were inaccurate. However, Sturgeon’s rhetoric went deeper, framing the choice as being between what was portrayed as SNP economic respite and other (unionist) parties’ conformity to orthodoxy as the choice between further pain and instant relief; austerity was made relatable – and, crucially, avoidable – to the electorate. The eventual, unexpected Conservative majority – in all its unfettered abhorrence – serves a double strategic purpose for the SNP. It lends further austerity to rail against whilst perpetuating the idea that continued Tory rule is somehow exactly what Labour campaigned for during the referendum.

It is perhaps the distance the between the rhetoric of the SNP and their record which presents our greatest challenge. As a self-proclaimed party of the social democratic centre-left, their factual record is better described as managing mediocrity than progressive change or, indeed, very much change at all. Inequality remains rife within education, where twice as many pupils from the least deprived areas leave school with top-level qualifications as those from the most deprived areas – and health, where the length of life lived in good health varies by a staggering 24.3 years between the most and least deprived areas with little sign of material improvement in either area. As such, the SNP’s claim to the mantle of progressivism is tenuous at best; nevertheless, they have succeeded in making space for themselves as the natural party of government. This allows them to dismiss criticism as “talking down Scotland” and to portray opposition parties as complainers whilst they “get on with the job”; considerable irony from a government presiding over little in terms of material change, all the while lamenting the constitutional position in which they find themselves.

These factors combined do appear to paint a somewhat bleak picture for the near future of Scottish Labour. However, recent polling (TNS, Aug 2015) is far from unequivocal in support of the Scottish Government. On education, for example; 59% of those polled rated the Scottish Government’s management of education as either ‘neither good nor poor’ (40%) or ‘poor’ (19%), with 30% answering ‘good’ whilst, on the NHS, 62% rated the Scottish Government’s management of the NHS as ‘neither good nor poor’ (33%) or ‘poor’ (29%), with 34% rating it ‘good’. It is clear there are areas with which the electorate are not entirely satisfied. Nevertheless, perceived record in government does not necessarily translate into changes in voting intention, as displayed in the most recent polling by TNS (21 December 2015). Ever nearer to the Holyrood elections, we currently trail the SNP by 37% and 34% in the constituency and list votes respectively; a concrete representation that a mediocre government requires sustained, effective and reasonable opposition in order both to be held to account and, in turn, defeated.

At the helm of our party now is Kezia Dugdale. She is a young, talented woman who used her first conference speech as leader to announce true progressive policies; the Fair Start Fund for children in deprived areas as well as higher education grants for care leavers, funded by an increase in the top rate of income tax – when Holyrood powers allow – to 50%. This alongside the reversal of the cuts to air passenger duty to allow for the full reinstatement of any and all tax credit cuts imposed by George Osborne, now thankfully abandoned. However, Kezia understands that the problem lies not with policy, but with perception; an assertion further supported by the lack of a ‘Corbyn bounce’. In her first media appearances after her election as leader, she asked not that former Labour voters flock back at a moment’s notice; simply that they hear us again. Whilst it remains to be seen how we achieve this, I look forward to being a part of that change, and to being a part – however small – of rebuilding the party I love; indeed, the party I know Scotland needs.

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