Hope and opportunity for Labour in Scotland
John Ruddy takes a look at the 2015 and 2016 numbers and suggests there may be grounds for cautious optimism in June’s snap general election.
In the Holyrood elections last May Labour was squeezed tactically between the Yes/SNP camp and the Tories playing up as standard bearers for No voters. The Westminster election on June 8th could allow Labour to regain some votes that were lost in 2015 as we begin to rebuild.
The election in 2015 can already be seen as the high-water mark for the SNP. By galvanising the Yes vote that was so bitterly disappointed by the referendum result in 2014, they managed to get just under 50% of the vote, which the first past the post electoral system translated into 56 out of 59 seats. 12 months later, at the Holyrood elections, this had dropped to 46.5% on a lower turnout. It’s reasonable to assume that some of those Yes voters who voted for the first time in 2014, voted again in 2015 for the SNP – but have gradually been reverting back to their normal habit of not voting.
As anyone who has been out on the doorsteps and streets of Scotland over the last few months will tell you, opposition to the SNP has been getting more strident, and also less tribal. Voters opposed to the SNP have been saying “I’ve been a lifelong supporter of Labour/ Conservatives/ Liberals, but this time I’m voting for X to get rid of the SNP”. Voting is getting much more tactical, in a way that hasn’t been seen in Scotland since the 80s and 90s – when it was an anti-Tory vote.
While I don’t think we’ll see any party other than the SNP as the largest party come June 9th, I think there is every chance that they will win fewer votes, and potentially fewer seats, than in 2015. The Tories are riding higher in the polls in Scotland than they have done for many years, and in areas where they are already seen as the main challenger to the SNP they should do well. Despite what the SNP would have you believe, there were Scots who voted for Brexit, and so the likely pro-EU stance of the SNP will not attract everyone. I can see the Conservatives picking up seats – Aberdeenshire West & Kincardine, and Berwickshire, Roxburgh & Selkirk, are two of the most vulnerable. The 2016 results in these areas must make poor reading for SNP MPs.
The Lib Dems too have their opportunity. There is a market for an almost exclusively pro-EU party. Their best chance is surely Edinburgh West, where disgraced former SNP MP Michelle Thomson will not be standing, and where the Lib Dems won the equivalent Holyrood seat in 2016. Several of the Highland SNP MPs may also be vulnerable, especially after they failed to defend Highland & Islands Enterprise from the centralisation of the SNP government.
And what of Scottish Labour? Despite our current standing in the polls, there is also a good case for us to think we can increase our vote and possibly even make gains too. Defending Edinburgh South is obviously a priority, but here voters see in Ian Murray a doughty champion, not only of the UK but also of the EU, and we must hope they will continue to support him. There are also seats where if the increased Yes/SNP from 2015 vote fails to turnout this time, we can expect to see Labour to be much more competitive, and against the lacklustre performance of the incumbent SNP MPs over the last two years, could even make a surprise gain.
Here are the seats I think Labour should be targeting for June:
- Edinburgh North and Leith
Turnout here increased by over 10,000 in 2015, yet Dierdre Brock’s majority was only 5,597. Over 9,000 people voted Conservative in 2015, and could be squeezed to turf out an MP who hasn’t made any sort of splash thus far.
- East Lothian
Iain Gray held his seat last May here – again defying the odds as in 2011. Likewise, 2015 saw an increase in turnout of nearly 10,000, with an SNP majority of 6,803. Iain fought a campaign purely focused on the local issues and the failure of the SNP to address these. A similar campaign could win here again.
- East Renfrewshire
A seat complicated by tactical voting in the past, 2015 saw Tories voting SNP in this seat simply to unseat Jim Murphy. It’s unlikely they’ll be doing that this time. Again, Kirsten Oswald’s majority is less than the increase in turnout. A strong “Only Scottish Labour can beat the SNP here” message could win, despite Eastwood having been lost in 2016, albeit on different boundaries.
Now for a few longer shots:
- Glasgow Central
In 2015, the Labour vote only went down slightly in terms of actual votes, but due to a massively increased turnout the SNP stormed to victory. Alison Thewliss is one of the few decent MPs on the SNP benches, however, and will be difficult to dislodge.
- Rutherglen and Hamilton West
The increase in turnout is only marginally more than the SNP’s majority. However, Margaret Ferrier hasn’t managed to shine in a parliamentary party not known for its bright stars. With 5,000 Conservative and Lib Dem voters to squeeze as well, anything is possible.
- Paisley and Renfrewshire South
Another seat where the increase in turnout is only slightly more than the SNP majority. While Mhairi Black has won YouTube followers, locally she is known more for her lack of constituency work. An interview just a few weeks ago where she suggested she hates Westminster and didn’t know whether she would stand again won’t have helped either. Since only a small percentage of her online following live in the constituency, it’s likely that local factors will play a bigger part than how many fans she has on Twitter.
So, it wouldn’t be beyond imagination to see the SNP lose seats to all three parties, making a significant dent in their total. They remain likely to retain the bulk of Scottish seats, but while in normal circumstances that would be seen as a massive victory for the SNP, by comparison to 2015 it could only be a disaster, especially if the First Minister uses the election as a mandate for a second referendum, as she has already indicated she will.
Who knows what might happen in the next eight weeks. If politics in Scotland and elsewhere over the last few years has taught us anything, it is that we must expect the unexpected. I’m sure that the election in June will continue in that tradition.