After two summers of fratricide, this summer has been one of quiet contentment in Labour’s ranks. The party’s unexpected success in denying the Conservatives an overall majority in June’s snap election brought about a lull in the internal squabbling about its direction and leadership that had marked the previous two years.
But now, it seems, that lull is about to come to an end, following Kezia Dugdale’s sudden decision to stand down as the party’s Scottish leader. Those loyal to the UK leader, Jeremy Corbyn, have never forgiven Dugdale for backing Owen Smith in last year’s leadership contest—though in the event it was Dugdale rather her critics whose view proved closer to the preference of a majority of Labour members in Scotland. Meanwhile, the fact that at three points the increase in Labour’s vote in Scotland fell far short of the ten-point increase south of the border has been blamed by Dugdale’s critics on her alleged failure to embrace Corbyn’s popular radical agenda.
This undercurrent now looks set to come out into the open, as those loyal to Corbyn try to secure control of the party north of the border. The contest for the succession will be a battle between Richard Leonard, a backer of Corbyn, and Anas Sarwar, sometime Deputy Leader of the Scottish party who, like Dugdale, last year backed Owen Smith. Such a contest will, for all practical purposes, be yet another rerun of the debate about the merits of “Corbynism.”
In truth, the characterisation of Scottish Labour under Dugdale as being to the right of Corbyn’s UK party is open to question. In the 2016 Scottish Parliament contest she was willing to increase the basic rate of income tax in Scotland whereas in June Corbyn was not proposing to make basic rate taxpayers pay a penny more. Meanwhile under Dugdale’s leadership the party in Scotland has embraced unilateral nuclear disarmament (despite her opposition), whereas Corbyn has failed to persuade the UK party to take such a step.
Was Scottish Labour under Dugdale to the right of Corbyn’s UK party? “That’s open to question”
Indeed, whatever differences there were between Dugdale and Corbyn did not did not stop the party making an advance in June amongst those in Scotland who put themselves on the left in politics. According to the British Election Study, support for the party amongst those who put themselves on the left increased from 29 per cent to 38 per cent, an advance doubtless helped by the fact that on average voters in Scotland reckoned that Labour were somewhat to the left of the SNP.
However, politics in Scotland is not just about left and right. It is also about the constitutional question, on which it was so evenly divided in the independence referendum three years ago. Labour’s problem north of the border in June was that while it did make some progress amongst those on the left, it lost ground amongst those who want Scotland to remain in the UK. Indeed, much of that ground had been lost long before the general election campaign, as was evident in the outcome of last year’s Scottish Parliament election and this May’s local election ballot, both of which had seen the party fall behind a resurgent Scottish Conservative party.
According to the British Election Study, support for Labour amongst those who voted No in September 2014 fell from 41 per cent in 2015 to 36 per cent in June this year. The most popular party amongst unionists this time around was the Conservative Party, which increased its support from 27 per cent in 2015 to 44 per cent in June. Indeed, no less than one in four of those who voted Labour in 2015 switched directly to the Conservatives—three times as many as did so in England and Wales.
This was a headwind the party south of the border simply did not have to face. Throughout the previous 12 months Ruth Davidson’s Conservative Party had been confident in its defence of the Union and its opposition to a second independence referendum. Labour, in contrast, appeared hesitant and wanting talk about anything, but anything else. As a result, Davidson was able to win many a No voter over, and (paradoxically given her own position on the issue) especially so if they had subsequently gone to vote to Leave the EU.
“One in four Scots who voted for Labour in 2015 switched directly to the Conservatives—three times as many as did so in England and Wales”
Where Labour did advance—primarily at the expense of the SNP—was amongst those who voted Yes in 2014. Amongst this group, the party’s support increased from a miserly 5 per cent in 2015 to 17 per cent in June. But what this means, of course, is that Labour’s body of supporters on the constitutional question become a much more heterogeneous group, much as it had been before the 2014 independence referendum. One in four of those who voted Labour in June voted Yes to independence in 2014, compared with no more than one in ten in 2015.
A key challenge facing the next Scottish Labour leader will be how to keep this coalition together. In the months leading up to the election, Dugdale had begun to try to push the party in the direction of “federalism” and secured at least a token reference to the idea in the party’s UK manifesto. Such a stance would seem to have the potential to appeal to the wish for more autonomy amongst those who voted Yes while underpinning the party’s commitment to staying in the UK in a way that might help it win over some lost No voters. Trouble is, so far the party has not spelt out in any detail what a “federal” solution might mean for Scotland, let alone for England, where the demand for devolution still appears relatively muted.
True, the constitutional debate north of the border is currently somewhat in abeyance, following SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon’s decision to delay her pursuit of a second independence referendum for 12 months. But with the country still evenly divided on the merits of independence, it will not go away. The next Scottish Labour leader needs not just to decide whether the party should march to the left or towards the centre, but also establish a much more effective vision of Scotland’s constitutional future than it has managed to do so far. Otherwise the party could well continue to struggle, whether led from the left or from the right.