John Maclean’s Body Is A-Spinning in his Grave

These blogs have at times been scathing when referring to the Scottish Labour Party and for that no apology is offered. And yet, those who read them objectively will have realised that the positions taken were as much from sorrow as from anger. Historically they were once a real force for good. Starting with union intransigence post WW2 as heavy industries declined, their political wing—Labour—stood unquestioningly on their side.

Whether defending job demarkation in shipyards, firemen on trains that had no fires, craft differential pay or details of dockers’ pay when containers were the future, the stories are many and varied but all have a common outcome: failure. Despite flashes of initiative and dedication such as Jimmy Reid and UCS, the 1950s to 1990s are a catalogue of declining industries, diminished incomes and the extinction of heavy engineering as a Scots staple.

Labour played a dismal, reactionary role in all that. Given low wages elsewhere and booming global trade, some decline was inevitable. But Labour’s dogged efforts to shore up workers’ share of profits was understandable, even commendable. Had they succeeded, they might have been heroes in the way they had fought for and won decent pay, adequate benefits and tolerable conditions duing the first half of the 20th century.

Seeing Labour as their only champions, people across what became Scotland’s Rust Belt—West Central Scotland with outposts in West Fife, Clacks and Dundee—voted for them in such numbers that earlier representation by Liberals and Tories was wiped out. And, given they became the sole local power brokers, from City Chambers in George Square to Cowdenbeath Town Hall, Labour ran the local show; Miners’ Clubs as social centres; council house allocation; public service jobs (c.f. Monklands in the 1990s) went to those submitting the right-colour forms.

Despite the relative ineffectualness of the ‘feeble fifty’ Scots Labour MPs in the 1980s against Thatcherism, mine closure, poll tax, loss of last moderinsed industries (Linwood, Ravenscraig), Labour heartlands strengthened in solidarity and resistance. What else could they do? But somewhere in there, the ‘buggins turn’ system (loyal Labour members became councillors, board members, even MPs with little beyond loyalty to deserve it) became self-referencing and developed a pavlovian hostility to any who questioned it.

Throughout all this, Labour never wavered from its public message of ‘Labour values’—support for the poor and the vulnerable; rights for the disabled; protection for children; free health and education for all. Problem was that the advent of UK New Labour under Blair—while still protesting such values—went well outside their normal support base and pretty much sold their soul to the middle class and private sector devil. Until 2008, that appeared to work like a dream; more money was found/filched/borrowed; benefits went through the roof; ‘old’ Labour (i.e. Scotland) was content sharing in the results.

The fact that not one new—let alone wildly popular—policy has emerged from Scottish Labour since our Scottish Parliament was established 15 years ago seems to bother few.

Because these results mentioned held good up to and including the 2010 General Election. Brown may have lost but in Scotland, in spite of the 2007 shock of an SNP-run Holyrood, voters stayed in the Labour fold in droves to return 41 Labour MPs and only 6 SNP—five of which were from non-Labour areas. Adding in the fact that Labour was part of the recent ‘winning’ NO campaign in the referendum, many in the party are breathing sighs of relief and settling into the usual motions for next May, expecting business as usual.

But that is dangerous thinking. Unless some form of serious cross-party UK compromise on major devolution to Scotland via the Smith Commission happens, large chunks of the NO vote (who did so on the promise of something substantial short of independence) will join with the thousands of Labour voters who retched at being in the same campaign as the Tories and use the new widespread political awareness to reflect deeply where their vote might go. Assuming it will go to/stay with Labour is delusional.

Whether Labour needs Scotland or not to find a majority, they must do well in England in the first place. That has been called into question by several recent polls, the most recent of which is from Lord Ashcroft, looking at 11 marginal English constituencies with majorities of between 1,328 or 3.1 per cent (Brighton Kemptown) and 2,420 or 4.8 per cent (Gloucester). Their analysis is:

The overall swing from Conservative to Labour in this group of seats was 5 per cent, but as in previous rounds there was some variation between constituencies: from 2 per cent in Pudsey (a tie) and Gloucester (Tory hold) to 6.5 per cent in Hastings & Rye and 8 per cent in Brentford & Isleworth.

Though nine of these seats would change hands on the basis of these snapshots, Labour will not feel comfortable in many of them. Though Labour led by ten points in Enfield North and 13 points in Brentford, they were ahead by less than five points in Brighton Kemptown, Hove, Halesowen & Rowley Regis and Nuneaton.

Swings to Labour appear to be related to the UKIP presence, which varied significantly from one seat to the next. Nigel Farage’s party scored just 7 per cent in Brentford & Isleworth (where Labour’s share was up eleven points since 2010), but 24 per cent in Halesowen (where Labour were down by two points, though still just ahead).

As these figures imply, there was more direct switching from the Conservatives to Labour in Brentford than in seats where UKIP had jumped to a solid third place. This lends some support to the theory expounded in the recent Fabian Society paper Revolt On The Left, which suggests UKIP could hamper Labour in Tory-held target seats by diverting voters who might otherwise switch straight from blue to red – though the evidence so far is that this effect is not yet strong enough in these seats to counteract the erosion of the Tory vote.

So, areas of UKIP strength have every chance of derailing the Labour hope of a straight switch from Tory to them. Indeed, as many of those will be protest votes, the absence of fresh ideas, which UKIP seem to offer (even if half-baked) will erode Labour votes.

Which puts even more burden on Scotland to deliver their 41 MPs. Or more, if possible. But the strongest YES votes came from just those areas that represent(ed?) Labour heartlands. And now an analysis published this week in the Herald shows the biggest surge in the tripling of SNP membership also comes from those very same ‘heartland’ areas. Throw into the equation the fact that the latest YouGov poll for GE2015 in Scotland puts Labour at 28% and SNP at 45% (vs 42% and 20% in GE2010) and alarm bells should be ringing 24/7 throughout John Smith House.

Were such a swing of 20% to happen and the SNP finally to grab serious share in a Westminster vote too, it would be a disaster verging on a wipe-out for Labour. Even the most sanguine SNP psephologist does not expect that. However, were we to take no more than half the polled swing, dependent on the flood of new SNP members in key Labour seats, it still makes ugly reading for the SLP.

Labour could expect to lose the following seats to the SNP:

  • Airdrie & Shotts
  • Dundee West (the last non-SNP holdout in ‘YES City’)
  • Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East
  • East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow
  • Falkirk (where ex-Major Joyce has blotted both his & Labour’s copybook)
  • Glasgow East (Margaret Curran—held by John Mason prior to that)
  • Glasgow North
  • Lanark and Hamilton East
  • North Ayrshire and Arran
  • Ochil and South Perthshire

Many more would become marginal, the closest (within 2,000) including Glasgow Central, Livingston, Kilmarnock & Loudon and Linlithgow & East Falkirk. The Lib-Dems are likely to do just as badly proportionately, holding on to Orkney & Shetland, Northeast Fife and Ross, Skye & Lochaber but losing:


  • Argyll and Bute to SNP
  • Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk to Conservative
  • Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross to SNP
  • East Dunbartonshire to Labour
  • Edinburgh West (probably to Labour but a close 4-way call)
  • Gordon to SNP
  • Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey to SNP (Danny Alexander’s seat)
  • West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine to Conservative

Such a result would see:

  • Labour reduced by eight to 33 MPs
  • SNP much stronger going from six to 20
  • Lib-Dems quartered to just three
  • Tories enjoying a modest revival with three.

Such a result would not necessarily disable Labour ambitions to form a Westminster government but their performance would be unrecognisable to the party’s founding fathers as Blair was. Whether that further fragments the former heartlands remains to be seen. But losing anything like the ten seats listed above will create huge cracks in a once-monolithic edifice. The good news is it will make Labour actually work for once.

Meantime, that record 20 SNP MPs may outnumber any other smaller party—almost certainly Greens, Plaid and even UKIP—and may even contend with the LibDems as the third force, should England give them the trouncing they seem about to get in Scotland.

And if Alex were to use his newly free time to be re-elected as an MP (say, for Gordon?) to lead that formidable group, look out for fireworks and anything but Westminster business as turgid usual, espcially when contrasted with the comfy quiescence typical of most Scottish Labour MPs.


About davidsberry

Local ex-councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Retired in 2017.
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