It’s not the falling that kills you; it’s the landing
Bafflement and incomprehension are unlikely to be in short supply for Scottish Labour. Each time they hit a new low, the belief is that things can now only get better. With rare exceptions, the belief has continually been wrong.
So again this week. For the fourth election in a row, Scottish Labour lost seats. The progression of their seat totals since the first election to Holyrood, in 1999, now reads: 56 – 50 – 46 – 37 – 24. It’s true that a similar progression could be written for the Westminster parliament (Labour has lost seats at each of the last four elections there too), but there are particular challenges in Scotland that mean that Labour is facing an existential crisis north of the border.
We have of course heard much the same before of other parties. The Scottish Conservatives were supposed to be dead or dying after 1997 (in fact, from a little before). No seats at that election and no more than one at any subsequent Westminster election appears fringe-party status, though it was more representative of a poor efficiency and negative tactical voting; the vote shares weren’t too bad. This week, the Conservatives overtook Labour in vote share, overall seats and constituency seats.
Why might Labour be different? It comes down to purpose. Scottish Labour used to be about taking the fight to the Tories, promoting a centre-left agenda while supporting the union. The SNP is now far better placed to do the first two – hence the result last year – while Labour’s wavering on the independence question has handed the issue even more strongly to the Conservatives. The final, unspoken but very powerful reason for Scottish Labour was machine politics. If you wanted to get on in Scottish politics then in all but a few places, you had to join Labour.
Consequently, the revolution of the last decade has shorn Scottish Labour of all its purposes. It still offers a unique combination of policy stances but that’s a much more niche proposition.
By contrast, the SNP have (nearly) all their dreams come true. Despite missing out on another absolute majority, their strategic position is now even stronger than it was before the election. I wrote back in March 2015 that the SNP’s big gameplan was to have the Conservatives form the official opposition to them in Holyrood (though I thought a Labour government in London necessary to engineer that outcome). Such a position significantly reinforces the SNP’s strength as whereas a resurgent Labour could win enough support to gain back power, the Conservatives’ vote-ceiling is much lower. On top of that, the likely English reaction to continued SNP dominance in Scotland may well increase the chances of a successful second independence referendum.
But where does that leave Labour? The Conservatives were able to recover because no-one else was willing to fight for the right-of-centre votes. The Lib Dems might survive by retreating into their historic heartlands and continuing to play the community-level politics they’ve traditionally excelled at. But Labour? The Greens, SNP and Lib Dems are all playing for some part of their electoral coalition. With their machine politics purpose no longer valid, they might find themselves forced to reengage and start campaigning in a way they hadn’t done in once-safe seats. Alternatively, the shock and the lack of local campaigning experience might just as easily result in incoherent paralysis.
Labour is of course still heavily supported by the unions, in Scotland as much as elsewhere. While that continues to be the case, the party will have a life-support system. But if another party can deliver what the unions want, wouldn’t there be a case for reassessing that relationship? It won’t happen quite yet – the dynamic of UK politics plays too much across that question – but the possibility has to be there in the background, particularly with the Conservatives now the main opposition to the SNP.
When parties die, the signs were usually there long before people recognised them. For Scottish Labour, those signs are there now. Their spiral downwards isn’t yet terminal but unless they can find a reason for living that chimes with the public, it soon will be.