Let’s start with the clutching at straws on the Ashcroft Scotland poll – it’s focussed on areas where Yes did well in the Independence campaign, and so Labour’s support for the Union was always going to place the party under real pressure. The polling in other seats (where No won) may tell a less apocalyptic story.
There endeth the straw clutching. Because the poll is absolutely diabolical. For weeks commentators, politicians and Labour strategists have mused on the outcome of Ashcroft’s polling, and the general consensus has been that there won’t be a uniform national swing, that Labour won’t be down to just a handful of seats, and although the SNP surge is real, it won’t wash away anywhere near the number of Labour seats people have been talking about.
Yet today has shown that to be absolutely spectacular hubris, the wishful thinking of a party and a Westminster Village who still haven’t fully grasped the seismic change that is happening in Scotland. And for that matter, a political class who are entirely reliant on marginal seat polling (outsourced to a billionaire Tory peer) to have a clear feel of what is happening out in the country.
This poll is as bad as it could possibly have been for Labour. Safe seats look set to fall like skittles across Scotland. Seats that have always been in the Labour column now look incredibly hard to retain with just three months until election day. And the Labour MPs who could lose their seats shows how far the party has fallen. Margaret Curran – the hardworking Shadow Scotland Secretary and one of the quiet heroes of the referendum campaign. Douglas Alexander – not only the Shadow Foreign Secretary – but also the person who is running Labour’s UK-wide election campaign, is polling behind the SNP. He already had two huge jobs to do, but arguably his hardest one will be keeping his own seat. God only knows where he’ll find the time for that crucial task. On these kind of swings, anything is possible. Scottish Labour is set to lose in Coatbridge for Christ’s sakes. Coatbridge – where we got nearly 70% of the vote in 2010. As we wrote earlier:
“In none of the seats currently held by Labour does the party’s share of the overall vote drop by any less than 10 points, and in only six of the 14 does the vote drop by less than 20 points. In Glasgow East, Labour are polling 25 points under their 2010 result.”
It’s hard to express how bad those numbers are.
If this polling is anywhere near accurate, and it’s replicate even partially elsewhere in Scotland, then any lingering and vague possibility of a majority Labour government just got torpedoed. Labour might pick up as many as 60/70 marginals in England and Wales, but that won’t haul Miliband across the finishing line if Labour has lost 30+ seats in Scotland. The Labour Party must begin to seriously prepare itself for the grim prospect of coalition or minority government. Because those are looking like best case scenarios now, rather than the worst case scenarios we might have once considered them to be.
Yet anyone in Scotland who thinks that by voting SNP they’ll get a Labour/SNP government is playing a very dangerous game. The reality is that every Labour seat lost makes it less likely that Miliband will head the largest party. An SNP surge threatens to put Cameron back in Downing Street come May 7th. In fact – that’s what he’s counting on.
So how has Scottish Labour ended up in this dreadful position? There’s a short-term cause and a long-term cause.
Short-term, Labour’s handling of the independence referendum and its aftermath has put the party on the wrong side of too many of the party’s previously core supporters. I thought that Better Together – a combined campaign for all who wanted to preserve the union – was a good idea. But the SNP were able to paint Labour as aligned to the Tories (“Red Tories”) and the party hasn’t been able to shake that. So whilst the UK-wide media claim that Miliband has “lurched to the left”, in Scotland the party are accused of being just like the Tories. This wasn’t helped by the way in which Johann Lamont decided to resign as Scottish Labour leader – by selfishly tossing a rhetorical “branch office” grenade over her shoulder as she left. All this has meant that whilst the pro-independence vote has largely coalesced around a single party, the pro-union vote is split between a number of parties. In many ways Scottish politics in 2015 is now a little like Northern Ireland – your view on the state of the union is what swings votes, more than economic or social concerns. That’s a terrifying political environment in which to operate.
But there are long-term reasons for Scottish Labour’s pathetic capitulation too. There’s a history of low contact rates in Scottish constituencies, with MPs taking their voters and their local areas for granted. Scottish Labour’s membership has dwindled away to the extent that the SNP can get more members into a paid-for event at the Glasgow Hydro than Labour has in the whole country. It’s no surprise that William Bain looks set to hold his seat for Labour – albeit with a reduced majority – because he’s a relentless local campaigners and doorknocker. But a lack of campaigners with his energy and local connections means people in Scotland (as in many theoretically safe seats in England and Wales) have little personal connection to the Labour Party anymore. I can only wonder how the senior Scottish MP who reportedly told colleagues that they didn’t understand the fuss about mobilising members – because they have less than a hundred and “win every time” – is feeling this morning. Terrified I suspect, and with good reason.
For the long-term health of the party things might look bleak, but some of the organisational measures that Jim Murphy has put in as Scottish leader – a refocusing on campaigning, getting a proper organisational structure in place, restoring a sense of professionalism to the operation and a hyper-active blizzard of announcements and speeches – will help Scottish Labour from outright collapse. But neither those who have labelled Murphy’s 50 or so days as Scottish leader a success or a failure are right in their analysis. He’ll be judged on how Labour perform this May and next. But the first of those two metrics now looks very tough indeed.
And if he – and Labour more broadly – fails in May, we’ll have a Tory government again. And perhaps the end of the union by the time the decade is out.
Remember when I said there were straws to be clutched at? Scrap that. Scottish Labour can’t afford to grasp at straws, they need to grab this election by the throat – and even then, the opportunity to turn this around may already have passed. The mood in the party is low this morning. It will take something almighty to shift the gloom now.