U.K. 'Super Thursday' Elections: The Strange Death of Scottish Labour

Kezia Dugdale Scottish Labour
Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale gives her keynote speech to the party conference at the Glasgow Science Centre on March 19, 2016 in Glasgow, Scotland. Her party came third behind the Conservatives in the Scottish elections on May 6. Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

The Labour Party awoke this morning to its worst result in Scotland since 1910. For the first time since the introduction of universal male suffrage, it polled third north of the English border.

This latest instalment in the chronic decline of a party that only a generation ago dominated every level of government in Scotland is a brutal reminder of how rapidly Scottish politics has changed in recent years.

At the same time the twin victors of the fallout from the 2014 independence referendum—centre-right unionism and centre-left nationalism—triumphed at the ballot box. This has created a new reality, anchored in the polarities of Scottish and British identity. A struggle to adapt to this new reality has thrown Scottish Labour into a prolonged crisis.

Over the past decade, the SNP has steadily made inroads into the party's traditional urban heartlands in Glasgow and the central belt. This was made possible due to decades of complacency within Scottish Labour. A party that once claimed to "weigh the vote" in almost every working class district of Scotland, is now on the verge of total collapse.

Scottish Labour's earnest young leader, Kezia Dugdale (the third holder of the title in as many years) stood on a platform of combating austerity with newly devolved tax powers. Yet despite Corbyn's energising of large swathes of Labour's membership only last year—this has not translated into an emboldened activist base in Scotland.

Far from offering a new sense of passion and purpose, the realignment of the U.K. Labour leadership on the left has in fact confused an already collapsing Scottish party. Islands of Labour support at this election, such as Eastwood (narrowly lost to the Tories) and Edinburgh Southern (Labour's only constituency gain) are affluent and suburban.

Swings from Labour to Conservative, which would have seemed politically impossible only a decade ago, occurred in several key battlegrounds. Central Scotland, among the most deprived regions in the country, returned four Conservative MSPs on the regional list—elected by a second ballot which aims to balance out constituency results at Scottish elections with an element of proportionality.

These results demonstrate that politics in Scotland is now inseparable from the constitution, with Labour continuing to pay the price. Across swathes of working class Scotland it is squeezed for standing with the Tories during the referendum on the one hand and failing to articulate its own coherent vision of unionism on the other.

Perhaps the greatest weakness of the Corbyn leadership's platform in Scotland is its complete disinterest in the constitution as a vital political issue. A commitment to "Home Rule" was traditionally integral to Labour's offering—with figures such as The Labour Party's founding father Keir Hardie promoting the cause of self-government for Scotland before the SNP was founded.

If there is any hope of Labour reasserting itself in Scotland, it must return to these roots.

A telling factor has underwritten Davidson's achievement: she has frequently articulated a brand of Toryism distinct from that of Cameron and Osborne. In one of her earliest speeches on gaining the Scottish Tory leadership she remarked: "We need to prove…beyond all reasonable doubt we do indeed put Scotland first, and that we are single-mindedly determined to do so in the future."

The irony should not be lost on Labour, despite being the party that delivered devolution in the face of vigorous Tory opposition in 1997, it has now fallen behind both its rivals in the only political stakes that matter in mainstream Scottish politics—who is best placed to defend Scotland's interests. 

In such a context the traditional ideological distaste felt by left wing intellectuals such as Corbyn for nationalism is a major liability. Yet if the Labour leader can again infuse its vision of Britain with a project for radical constitutional reform and far-reaching federalism, the total annihilation of Scottish Labour need not be inevitable.

Such a federalist project is not simply the only option to prevent the eventual disappearance of Labour north of the border, it may also be the only feasible means to protect the existence of the United Kingdom itself.

Christopher Silver is a writer and political commentator based in Edinburgh, @silverscotland

U.K. 'Super Thursday' Elections: The Strange Death of Scottish Labour | Opinion