By Héctor Sierra
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Can Labour revive in Scotland?

This article is over 1 years, 2 months old
Is the Scottish National Party’s dominance coming to an end?
Issue 2855
Scottish Labour leader Anas Sawar

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar (Picture: Scottish Parliament)

As the Scottish National Party (SNP) hits crisis, the Labour Party sniffs a chance to revive. The financial scandals and arrests of leading figures have overturned the pattern of recent years that saw a routinely stable parliamentary political scene dominated by the SNP.

Many independence supporters have been rocked by Nicola Sturgeon’s departure, financial scandals, arrests of leading figures and the admission that a second independence referendum won’t be happening anytime soon.

Scottish Labour marginalised itself to the fringes of Scottish politics after its unholy alliance with the Tories to save the union in 2014. At the 2015 general election Labour had a catastrophic defeat, losing 40 of its 41 seats to the SNP. But the foundations of its decline had come years before.

At the 1997 election Labour won 56 out of 72 seats on the basis of 46 percent of the vote.

But support quickly ebbed as the reality of New Labour’s lacklustre programme, its embrace of neoliberalism and its support for slaughter in Iraq hit home.

Now it has seen a rebound. Labour had already overtaken the Scottish Tories in the polls before the SNP crisis. And now there are indications that it’s also absorbing voters from the SNP.

A YouGov poll in late April showed the lowest voting intention for the SNP in the constituency vote in Scottish elections since 2014 at 38 percent. That’s nearly a 20 points’ decline since its height in 2020. By contrast, Labour registered its best results in the same period.

Similar results could be important in a general election to cement a Labour victory under Keir Starmer. Labour hopes it might now take as many as 20 seats—it presently has one.

So after a decade of SNP hegemony and Labour decline, are the tables finally turning? Political scientist John Curtice doesn’t think so. He recently said there are signs support for Scottish Labour is already “pretty much flatlining”.

In an election today, Labour would become the largest opposition party. But that was already on the cards before Sturgeon’s resignation. Polls show the SNP would still be the largest party. Curtice’s remarks underline there are real limits to any sustained Labour growth in Scotland.

Firstly, there is the lack of any inspiring vision to enthuse people. Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar may sometimes sound better than Starmer—hardly a high bar. Sarwar, for example, is less likely to pander to racist myths and recently clashed with Starmer over support for free university education.

But fundamentally he stands for the same ideas of compromise and servitude to big business. Starmer has openly admitted he intervened to replace previous left wing leader Richard Leonard.

Sarwar commands a shrinking ship. From a figure of 35,309 in 2017, Scottish Labour membership was down to 16,467 in 2021. Following the leak this year that tens of thousands had left the SNP, Labour has refused to reveal its own current membership figures.

Secondly, Labour may hope that the SNP’s crisis heralds a period where independence will not dominate Scottish politics. But by and large support for independence has remained stubbornly unchanged throughout the SNP travails. So Labour’s lackey attitude to the British state will remain an obstacle to any substantial recovery.

The fact some independence supporters are looking to Labour shows there is no automatic overlapping between voting SNP and the reasons why many working class people back independence. Indeed, surveys have consistently shown that up to 40 percent of Labour voters back independence.

And it’s a positive development that more are breaking with the idea that if they want to see Scottish independence they have to be chained to the dead hand of the SNP. It won’t fight for a referendum but will ask working class people to support its agenda of cuts, privatisation and support for Nato imperialism.

The battle remains to fight for independence through the methods of class struggle and by confronting the British state, not sucking up to it. And independent working class action is vital as both parliamentary options currently fail miserably to match the need and desire for real change.

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