Labour is making a comeback in a very different Scotland

Starmer’s victory in Rutherglen is big. But the days when Labour was Scotland’s ‘natural party of government’ are long over

October 06, 2023
Sign of things to come? Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar celebrates with his party’s newest MP, Michael Shanks. Image: PA Images / Alamy
Sign of things to come? Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar celebrates with his party’s newest MP, Michael Shanks. Image: PA Images / Alamy

Back in August, the publication of this year’s Scottish exam results painted a gloomy picture. Not only did pupils from better-off areas fare better than those from less well-off areas, but the attainment gap between rich and poor is now wider than it was in 2017 (even if it is marginally better than 2019). This trend underlines the reality facing young people across Scotland, and indeed Britain, today: that we remain fundamentally a society in which where you were born and where you were brought up are deciding factors in your life chances. There will be many who can’t even see how their lot could get any better.

It was around a month after exam results day that an overdue byelection was announced—after a tortuous process to remove its disgraced incumbent Margaret Ferrier—in the Rutherglen and Hamilton West constituency. You could look at this constituency as a microcosm of the divides the attainment gap highlighted. Parts of Shawfield, to the very north of the constituency abutting Glasgow city centre, rank among the top 5 per cent most deprived areas in Scotland. By contrast parts of Burnside, just down the road, are among the least deprived 10 per cent, according to the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation. Twenty-three per cent of children in the wider South Lanarkshire Council area are classed as living in poverty. For voters here, benefit caps and service cuts are not simply pawns in a culture war game. They are hard facts, with real-world implications.

All of this is to say that Rutherglen today is standard Labour territory: that coalition of traditional working class alongside the comfortable, but not flush, middle. Over a decade which has seen the SNP’s strongest electoral performance in its history, it was this constituency that remained one of the only real toss-ups in Scotland’s Central Belt. What’s indicative about yesterday’s result is not that Labour won, but that it won so well, with a huge 20.4 per cent swing.

Let’s make no bones about it: the SNP is on course to lose seats come the next general election, and possibly quite a few. The current Scottish government is bereft of vision, relying on cosy nation-building fantasies even as the prospect of another independence referendum in the midterm dwindles to nil.

What Labour will be eagerly hoping for is that this result indicates not simply more Scottish seats, but a reset of Scottish political opinion—perhaps to the good old days of the early 2000s—when Labour dominance in Scotland was not only guaranteed but “natural”. Yet as is always the case with the good old days, things were simpler back then.

Unionists in Scotland will sometimes stress the arbitrary nature of the nation’s territorial boundaries—“a Glaswegian shipbuilder has more in common with a Liverpudlian steelworker than a Highland laird”, and so on. When it comes to winning elections, however, suddenly Scotland as a distinct and separate political community becomes very important indeed. Off the back of this result, Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar has said “Scotland will lead the way in delivering a UK Labour government”; Labour arguably spends as much time thinking about “winning back the trust of people in Scotland” (to use Keir Starmer’s words) than it does the seats of Middle England, which have more or less been the real kingmakers of every postwar election.

This makes electoral sense. For the past 80 years—as has been pointed out by others—Scotland has tended to vote as more or less one distinct bloc at Westminster, plumping wholesale for one party or another.

The problem is that this has created the illusion that there exists a “natural governing party” for Scotland, when what it actually shows is that the country takes a very long time to change its mind. If the diverse Scottish electorate can be said to have anything in common—from shipbuilders to lairds—it’s a tendency to be cautious about change, and then be too comfortable once that change has been made. It took Scotland many decades to come round to the Labour party in a big way; likewise the SNP.

For now, UK-wide anti-Conservative sentiment seems more than enough to get Labour over the line in Scotland. But Labour will “return” here in a very different landscape from the 20th century—one in which the Scottish public are now well accustomed to having another avenue offering them a forum for more nuanced political expression: the Scottish parliament. 

The fact that devolution began as a Labour-dominated project has resulted in arrested development. In the early years, the party did not have to cooperate with a political opponent north of the border. When it came to negotiating UK-wide issues, its heart wasn’t in the Joint Ministerial Committee; it much preferred party-political routes for intergovernmental dialogue. In other words, Labour only had to work with itself in those days, a luxury which will not be afforded a prospective Labour government in Westminster this time. (At least not until the next Holyrood elections in 2026, when Scottish Labour will be looking to stage its own comeback.)

Nowadays, the perception is that no party is “for” devolution anymore. (A somewhat chilly relationship between Starmer and the Labour first minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, does not help.) Any genuine and long-lasting Labour renewal in Scotland will have to involve the party reclaiming that mantle, but that will likely require brushing off old entitlements and any notion that power expressed outside of Westminster is somehow seditious or insubordinate.

For now, Labour will be too focused on winning to think so far into the future. But as victory comes within reach—and Rutherglen shows it will—the party will have to rethink how to govern in a 21st-century United Kingdom.