The left in Scotland is spread across a range of organisations and political parties including Labour, the Greens, and the SNP. Challenging environmental destruction, inequality and neoliberal thinking are priorities of our times. The outcome of May’s elections could make a major contribution to responding to these priorities.
Thursday May 6th 2021 will see the sixth elections to the Scottish Parliament. 73 seats will be elected from local constituency, with the remaining 56 coming from eight regional party lists. This election will, of course, be the first to be held in the context of a pandemic. Even the most optimistic individuals would concede that Covid and its hangover will likely have an impact on campaigning and potentially the results.
Here we consider the Scottish Labour Party’s approach to the elections. With only four months to go until the votes are counted, Labour are finalising their regional lists. The internal ballots open on January 8th. Given recent polling, the assumption of Labour Party insiders is that their best chance of election is from the regional list. As a consequence, competition for constituency nominations in some parts of the country has been less competitive than might be expected. Watching the impact of the resignation on this will be interesting.
Labour’s present third place at Holyrood is part of a long-term decline from political prominence in Scotland. The energy expended in contributing to the establishment of the Parliament in 1999 has not been matched since. They have also failed to provide leadership in the context of political pluralism. Added to this, the most recent UK general election in 2019 did not produce much solace: a 19% vote and only one member returned to Westminster – Ian Murray. This reflected an historic low.
Furthermore, the rise of the SNP and Scottish civic nationalism have created less than fertile terrain. The Scottish Labour Party also failed to benefit to any great degree from Corbynism and is now being made uncomfortable by Starmer and his rehashed plans for the constitution and to move Labour to the centre. The popularity of the First Minister and her comparative competence in relation to Covid made matters worse. Richard Leonard’s leadership, sadly, was doing little to change the situation. Opposing a second independence referendum made any potential progress near impossible.
So given all this, is a second-time-round, third place behind the Conservatives the best that can be hoped for? Is there anything to the Green Party’s provocative assertion that they can catch Labour in terms of seats? It would appear premature to suggest this is in any way automatic before the campaigning takes place. Reflecting on the last election may assist.
In 2016 Labour attained 19.1% of the regional vote (435,919), returning 21 of its 24 MSPs. The Conservatives with 22.9% got 524,222 votes, producing 24 of their 31 MSPs. Meanwhile the Greens scored 6.6%, their 150,426 votes contributing to all six of their seats. On these figures Labour catching the Tories would not seem impossible – the most recent poll suggests they might – whilst the Greens’ claims seem overstated. But is it as simple as that?
More widely, polling is suggesting that the SNP will take as many as 70 of the 73 constituency seats, with the Liberals holding both Orkney and Shetland and the Tories maintaining a single seat: Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire. Labour would lose all three of its constituency seats. This prospect has seen former leader Iain Gray step down, leaving present Deputy Leader Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) presumably feeling nervous, with Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) vying for a position on the Lothian list.
With the 56 regional seats, however, the picture varies across the country. In 2016, Labour scored highest in Central with 24.8%, followed by Glasgow at 23.8%. If these figures hold up, they could return up to 8 MSPs between them. But in the regions where Labour polled lower, the prospects look less promising: Highlands and Islands (11.2%) and North East (12.6%). The four seats they returned between them look under pressure.
Unless Labour can shift its focus to campaigning for votes on the regional lists, the previous return of 21 regional MSPs looks precarious. Addressing this may be difficult in the context of demoralised, localised parties which focus on areas smaller than the region. This may be compounded by internal tensions over who is placed towards the top of each list. Candidate recognition and social media skills will also be increasingly important in what will not be a typical campaign.
Arguably all this could be overtaken by an approach that highlights the Scottish Tories’ association with the unpopular performance of the Johnson government and its policies. This is difficult territory for a party fixed on its critique of the SNP and still marked by its proximity to the Conservatives in relation to the defence of the Union.
In addition to the voting system and Labour’s enthusiasm for articulating an anti-Tory message is the ability of the Greens replaying their ‘second vote Green’ approach. This could increase the competitiveness of the regional seat distribution in a number of parts of the country. Although, as stated, if Labour can mark themselves as being against Boris, this will not automatically be to their detriment. That said, given the timescales and the obstacles to traditional campaigning, it is unlikely that there will be an extensive co-ordinated anti-Tory vote.
However, this is where the engagement of Labour and the left more broadly can connect electoral politics to the experiences of those campaigning against austerity and injustice on a daily basis. If they fail to do this, Labour is unlikely to increase its standing in the Scottish Parliament, with independence seen as the more fruitful anti-establishment route. Equally, Labour are unlikely to improve their standing more broadly without contemplating the alliances they will need to engage in if they are to contribute to making changes in society.