The Labour Party is going through a crisis: substandard results in opinion polls, Ed Miliband is viewed as a poor leader and Johann Lamont quits as leader of the Labour Party in Scotland amid accusations of Westminster colleagues of treating Scottish Labour like a ‘branch office’, preventing the autonomy that might allow a flexible alternative to develop suited to a different political landscape. With the Conservatives currently presiding over a fall in living standards and set to leave behind a parliament that has seen the value of wages drop over the course of a full term for the first time since World War II, Labour ought to have been harbouring hopes of returning a majority at next year’s General Election but that is now in serious doubt.
The crisis deepens when considering recent opinion polls that specifically focus on Scotland, a recent poll conducted for STV by Ipsos MORI put support for the Scottish National Party (SNP) on 52% (other polls have not recorded such a high figure but regularly put the SNP above 40%) with Labour languishing on 23%. Translated into seats at the next General Election, the SNP would gain 48, giving them 54 seats, while Labour would lose 37, leaving them with 4 seats. Given the failure of Labour to open up any meaningful gap in UK-wide polls over the Conservatives, losing the support of Scotland makes a Labour majority highly unlikely. Looking deeper into the poll results, it shows that among the most deprived section (bottom 20%) of the population, 63% plan to vote SNP with only 19% intending to vote Labour. Labour can no longer claim to be the party of the working class in Scotland; many Labour heartlands in and around Glasgow rejected their message during the independence referendum and have been left disillusioned by their apparent ‘cosying up’ with the Conservatives in the run up to the vote on 18th of September.
This disillusionment is reflected to a lesser extent throughout England where Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat are increasingly portrayed as an out of touch elite. UKIP, once seen as a party predominantly of the right, have swung their gunwales to the opposite end of the political spectrum, attempting to entice working class, former Labour voters as the party most likely to listen to their concerns. As Labour have shifted right, the SNP have utilised the political space left behind. In England, however, this space is yet to be adequately filled. The Green Party is experiencing an upsurge in support and is beginning to look like the only credible left-wing party but at present they still lack the profile to match. The Liberal Democrats are most at ease mining a rich broad left seam in policy generation mode, but the fiasco over university tuition fees has alienated a generation, perhaps for good, and their implication in the austerity politics of the coalition has seen support from the left haemorrhage away. Taken together, this represents a lack of serious and sustained challenge from the left.
The Labour Party has effectively lost its way, it is not sufficiently different from the Conservatives on economic policy, especially given the importance of the economy to the electorate. Signing up to the programme of austerity has backfired and not putting up strong enough opposition in the House of Commons bedroom tax vote with the interim leader of Scottish Labour Anas Sarwar and prospective leader Jim Murphy among others failing to show will live long in the memory for social justice campaigners. Both instances have served to undermine the credibility of the Labour Party as a whole.
Ed Miliband recently declared that if Labour won the next election, it would replace the unelected House of Lords with an elected Senate made up of members elected from regions rather than constituencies, allowing fairer representation for areas outside London as part of a wider effort to devolve power throughout the UK. In itself this policy has limited electoral appeal, although it is a step in the right direction for attempting to regain support. Further policies based on public ownership would also help the party reconnect with its wavering base. The most recent YouGov poll on rail ownership showed that 60% of people support the nationalisation of railways, with only 20% opposing, yet the Labour Party only offers a compromise that would see railways run with profit as the sole motivator, rather than as a public service. Although committing to full nationalisation would harm Labour’s standing with business interests, the more recent sharpening of anti-corporate sentiment, especially among younger voters, may well compensate for this. Policies such as the mansion tax and reintroduction of the 50p tax rate for the highest earners have left-wing appeal, however the announcement that they would raise the minimum wage to £8 per hour by 2020 was met with derision and even mocked by David Cameron for being ineffectual. As with the 50p pension increase that blighted an earlier New Labour budget, falling short on policies which directly affect a large section of the population that might otherwise prefer Labour is evidence of a party out of touch.
The Labour Party needs to regain a radical edge and the leadership campaign in Scotland offers a valuable insight into the internal struggle and future direction of the party. There are three candidates, Jim Murphy, Neil Findlay and Sarah Boyack. The latter two are MSPs while the former is a Westminster MP, an evident point of contention. Following Johann Lamont’s comments, electing a member of the London parliament as leader would be seen as maintaining the central hegemony, offering ample ammunition for the SNP to attack Jim Murphy at First Minister’s Questions and the Labour Party in general. Jim Murphy is also widely seen as being on the Blairite wing of the party and thus unlikely to challenge the SNP with new left politics. What devolution started, the referendum debate has crystallised, namely a more federal interpretation of politics, which suits local interests and persuasions rather than a one-size-fits-all centralised model. Compare Scottish Labour’s identify crisis with the massive increase in support for a Scottish-based and Scottish-focused SNP. Unison, Unite and many smaller unions have backed Neil Findlay on the basis that the ex-bricklayer and teacher is more likely to connect with the electorate and crucially, is a MSP. Meanwhile, Jim Murphy received the most parliamentary nominations by some margin, highlighting the difference that exists within the party. Murphy, Findlay and Boyack would each take the party in a different direction; with politicians, associated unions and national members each holding a one-third share of the vote, the resulting leader will face severe pressure from either London HQ (Findlay and Boyack) or the unions (Murphy). Neither position is enviable and bringing the party together under the current power structure will be immensely difficult, perhaps impossible.
Several former Labour politicians in Scotland echoed Lamont’s concerns following her resignation. The Labour Party cannot hope to be popular in Scotland again unless it devolves power within and allows itself to adapt policy specifically to Scotland. Being adaptable and accounting for the different constituent parts of the UK may well prove to be the ‘new normal’ post-referendum and ought to present an opportunity to Labour rather than a threat, given the breadth and depth of opinion within the party, if only those who hold the power in London can accept it. The party needs to rediscover its raison d’etre based around the principle of public ownership, social justice and offering a different path to harsh austerity measures in order to reconnect with its traditional voter base otherwise where Scotland abandons the party today, the remainder of the UK may well follow tomorrow.