This was first posted on Facebook on 15th January 2021, with support from my Ko-Fi network.
To recap, for those not familar in detail with recent Scottish history: we had an independence referendum in November 2014, and No won. (I voted No, for reasons I still think were correct at the time: and I noted at the time that whenever I listened to Yes Scotland’s campaigning, it made me want to vote No: whenever I listened to Better Together, it made me want to vote Yes. I don’t think I was just being perverse: both official campaigns were using incredibly bad arguments.)
The three unionist parties in Scotland are the Scottish Conservatives, Scottish Labour, & the Scottish Liberal Democrats. Not one of them is an independent party able to make their own policy and campaign along different lines from the Westminster party. They formed Better Together, promised to campaign together to save the union, and, if a majority vote for No means they won, they did.
So, between 2012 and 2014, Labour campaigned with the Tories and LibDems against Scottish independence.
The LibDems had already gone into spiralling free-fall in Scotland thanks to the 2010 ConDem coalition: in SP2011, they went from 17 seats to 5. (In Scotland, the LibDems had always portrayed themselves as a liberal party slightly to the left of Labour: their eagerness to put the Tories in power and themselves into government and to share the lies the Tories were telling about the 2008 banks crash being due to “Labour spending” will take a couple of generations to forget.)
The Tories have been unpopular in Scotland generally since the poll tax, the “community charge”, imposed in Scotland a year ahead of being inflicted in England, and when the English reported exactly the same results as in Scotland, London-centric media & the Tory government expressed intense surprise. But after 2010, they only lost two seats – going down from 17 to 15. No one had expected the Tories to behave any differently, and in general, voting intent didn’t change.
A lot of the LibDem voters jumped to the SNP – they’d learned not to love Labour, with whom the LibDems had been in coalition in the Scottish Parliament til the 2007 Holyrood election. (I still think if the Scottish Greens had made a push to stand more constituency candidates in 2011, the Greens might have picked up more of the LibDem vote.) The SNP share of the seats, in 2011, went up 23 to 69, and the SNP were in government for the second time and had a democratic mandate to hold an independence referendum.
Labour’s share of the Holyrood seats went down 7 – 37 MSPs. They were still the second-largest party and the official opposition, but since 1999 when Donald Dewar, first First Minister, opened the Parliament he had himself inaugurated with the Scotland Act (“There shall be a Scottish Parliament. I like that.”) they had never before been at less than a third of Holyrood. The leader who had led Scottish Labour MSPs to this shattering defeat (Iain Gray) stepped down in December, and a new leader (from now on to be elected by Labour membership in Scotland, not only Labour MSPs) took his place: Johann Lamont.
(The leader of the Scottish Conservatives 2011-2019, and again by special request paid for by peerage from 11 August 2020 to 7th May 2021, Ruth Davidson, won her place by campaigning for the Scottish Tories to remain a part of the Westminster party: Murdo Fraser, deputy leader under Davidson’s predecessor Annabel Goldie, had run on a platform of the Scottish Tories becoming an independent party, caucusing with the Westminster party for the most part but able to develop their own policy lines suitable for Scotland.)
(Apparently BBC politics shows – especially Question Time – found it truly disconcerting in that era 2011-2017 that if they summoned the Scottish Labour, Scottish Tory, and Scottish National Party leaders, they got three women and had to look for a man to “balance” their panel. )
Johann Lamont led Scottish Labour to victory in the 2014 referendum. But the fact that many “Labour strongholds” then had delivered a strong vote for Yes, suggested to the London Labour leadership that she obviously hadn’t done all she could to persuade Labour voters of how awful independence would be. Lamont resigned, and was replaced by Jim Murphy, a Scottish Labour MP, who understood so little about the constitution of Holyrood that he supposed he could have a Labour MSP step down from a safe Holyrood constituency and win a by-election so that he would have a seat in the Scottish Parliament.
(The system at Holyrood is designed to financially punish a MSP who steps down mid-term, to encourage MSPs to sit out their term to the next election.)
What was also true was that polling showed that Labour’s popularity was going into spiralling free-fall in Scotland. Had Jim Murphy been able to persuade a Labour MSP to take the financial hit, it was entirely possible that he’d have lost the by-election.
Labour in London evidently did not realise that standing with Tories and LibDems on the same platform, wasn’t going to make Scottish Labour look good to Scottish voters at all. While David Cameron and Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband had reportedly all agreed they would leave the campaigning in Scotland to their Scottish parties, naturally the Tories couldn’t resist having their reliable national right-wing press reliably rubbish independence for the “Jocks” and get quotes from “Spain” (mysteriously, always sourced via Whitehall to a London newspaper) assuring Scotland that the Spanish government would veto any attempt by Scotland to join the EU.
Nor did anyone seem to realise (except the SNP, who cannily had the voting age for the independence referendum lowered to 16) that independence for Scotland was a campaign calculated to appeal to the young and idealistic. The Conservatives never had any Scottish youth vote to speak of: the LibDems had lost what they had in 2010: Labour lost much of theirs in a rush between 2012 and 2015.
(The Conservatives, of course, have always counted on getting the youth vote again as the young grow older and acquire mortgages and savings and pensions to protect: and so far this is still working, though a whole generation in the UK who will never have a mortgage and never have savings and never have a pension are growing older.)
At all events, Johann Lamont’s poor performance during the independence referendum was noted, and she was replaced by Jim Murphy, with deputy leader MSP Kezia Dugdale, in December 2014. Murphy was determined to show he could outdo Lamont, beginning with a stunning victory in the 2015 Westminster elections, saving Scotland for Labour.
On 7th Mary 2015 Scotland went to the polls, and 56 of the 59 Scottish Westminster seats went to the SNP. Labour lost 41 MPs under Jim Murphy’s leadership.
(A joke I made at the time: “A Labour MP, a LibDem MP, and a Tory MP walk into a bar. “Oh,” says the bartender, “this must be Scotland.”)
In all honesty, I doubt he personally had much to do with it: Johann Lamont might have done better, but the only Scottish Labour MP to retain his seat was the one whose constituency in Edinburgh includes large numbers of vaguely-lefty older people living in Morningside, and the SNP candidate had published very rude remarks about old people on Twitter a few years earlier. The only Scottish Tory was in the Borders, where Tories grow thick and close (now, do not be suspecting me of a pun, I intreat), and the only Scottish Liberal Democrat was the MP for Shetland and the Orkneys, where they’re too Scottish to vote Tory, too conservative to vote Labour and too independent to vote SNP. (Historically, Shetland and the Orkneys belong to Norway, not to Scotland, and the islanders haven’t forgotten it.)
On 13th June 2015, Jim Murphy stepped down as Scottish Labour leader, and literally no one in the Scottish Labour Party wanted the job. You see, while Labour had suffered a crushing and noticeable defeat in Scotland at the Westminster elections, and London Labour were busy blaming the SNP for the Tory majority and for voting against Callaghan in 1979 and for being secret Nazis and I don’t know what, the Scottish Labour Party was looking forward apprehensively to the 2016 Holyrood elections, and wondering if they’d do any better there.
Kezia Dugdale, credit to her, stepped up. She had, I think, not expected to be more than a Deputy Leader for years to come – if Labour hadn’t lost so disastrously in 2015, she would have gone on being Deputy to Jim Murphy for five years or more. Dugdale was 33 when became Scottish Labour leader, and in my opinion, she did the best job she could with what she had to do it, and got small thanks for it from her own party and savage attacks from the misogynistic wing of the Scottish independence movement and from the right-wing media.
On 5th May 2016, Scottish Labour went down 14 seats from 38 to 24, Scottish Tories went up 16 seats to 31, and the Scottish Conservatives became the official opposition in Holyrood.
Scottish Labour officially didn’t blame Kezia Dugdale for this. She stayed on as leader of Scottish Labour til August 2017, at which point, after the modified success of the June 2017 general election – Scottish Labour went up to 7 Westminster MPs, but the Tories went up 12) she seems to have got some heavy hinting from Labour leadership that she really ought to resign and let more experienced hands take control for the future.
Richard Leonard became the Scottish Labour leader in November 2017, and if you have never heard of him, I am really not surprised. He was 54 when he became a MSP in 2016, and he had a long career as a Labour member and trade union leader behind him then. He was a strong supporter of Jeremy Corbyn (which Kezia Dugdale was not), and he had been active in the TUC and GMB. He is, I’m sure, a lovely man, no doubt kind to children and animals, and in all honesty, I have heard nothing but good about his trade union work. And quite clearly, the London Labour leadership felt he would do a better job of leading Labour to victory than the suspiciously-independence leaning Kezia Dugdale.
Kezia Dugdale’s partner, Jenny Gilruth, is a SNP MSP: Dugdale left the Labour Party in 2019 over Brexit, but said then she hadn’t left Labour to join another political party. Dugdale was born in Aberdeen and raised in Dundee: she went to university in Aberdeen and Edinburgh: she’d worked for Scottish Labour since she left university. Her entire career was inside the Scottish Labour Party. But she left it, publicly over Brexit. I don’t know Dugdale personally any more than I know any of the other list MSPs for Edinburgh and the Lothian (which is to say, they may know me by sight and name as a local political activist, and I know their background and history, but we’ve never exchanged a private word). But I would be genuinely surprised if she wasn’t campaigning for independence with her partner when we get to the next referendum.
Polls are nose-diving for Labour in Scotland. The SNP look set to win a majority, or at least be a minority party with Green confidence and supply. Most Scottish voters agree that if SNP/Green MSPs have a majority at Holyrood in 2021, there is a mandate for another independence referendum.
And as London Labour evidently will not see, and therefore Scottish Labour leadership cannot afford to see, Scottish Labour cannot campaign against independence with the Tories again without losing all of the ground they gained back after 2015, such as it is. Because London Labour is keen to win back the Brexiteer vote in traditional English Labour constituencies, Labour must support Brexit. But in Scotland, Brexit is a Tory position – Scotland voted Remain, the Scottish fishing industry is dying because of Brexit, Labour cannot campaign pro-Brexit in Scotland without sounding like the Tories – and Labour cannot campaign against independence in Scotland without sounding like the Tories.
A left-wing voter in Scotland isn’t going to vote Labour unless they are part of a very small group who both supported Brexit and opposed independence. But it is impossible for Scottish Labour to campaign for voters outside that catchment group without defying London to campaign against Brexit and without defying London to campaign for independence. And while campaigning against Brexit might be forgiveable, campaigning for independence is not.
Richard Leonard resigned today.
His deputy, Jackie Baillie, will lead Scottish Labour into the 2021 Holyrood elections. She’s been a MSP since 1999. Will her leadership over the next three and a half months make any real difference to the election results in May?
[I was wrong about this: with admirable speed, for Labour, they nominated candidates and elected Anas Sarwar, Scottish Labour MSP for the Glasgow Region – the first Muslim to be elected leader of a major UK political party.]
Will do politics another day, but today can I congratulate @AnasSarwar on becoming @scottishlabour leader – think this makes him first Muslim & Person of Colour leading a political party in UK, an incredible & historic achievement of which I am proud of him for. Well done Anas 👏
— Humza Yousaf (@HumzaYousaf) February 27, 2021
Whether it’s Jackie Baillie or someone else who is Scottish Labour leader as we campaign in the next independence referendum, it is regrettably certain that, once again, they’ll be standing on the same tired platform with the Tories and LibDems.
And in London, the failure to win left-wing Scots to that platform will be attributed once again to a failure of leadership, as it was with Iain Gray, Johann Lamont, Jim Murphy, Kezia Dugdale, and Richard Leonard.