The UK General Election - 4th July 2024


The steady decline of Scottish Labour

Emma Divers

Associate Director - Head of Scotland

“If you pin a Labour rosette to a donkey, there’s a 90% chance they’ll be elected in Scotland”. This was the once popular phrase repeated across the UK to illustrate the dominance of Labour in Scotland. Today, the story is very different. Scottish Labour seems to be tearing itself apart at the seams, and Richard Leonard’s recent reshuffle may be a sign of more trouble to come.

Since the 1960s Labour enjoyed unparalleled support north of the border. Many Scottish voters identified with their working class, trade union roots, and even when the party moved towards the centre-left, Thatcher’s time in Government led to a large number of Scots simply refusing to vote Tory – leaving Labour as their only credible alternative and ensuring a steady stream of Scottish Labour politicians returning to both Westminster and Holyrood.

But the days of Labour dominance in Scotland have passed. Now the third party in Holyrood and with only 7 Scottish MPs in Westminster, Labour have lost support to the SNP, and more recently, to the Scottish Conservatives who have enjoyed a dramatic upturn in public opinion just as Labour have suffered a decline.

Political analysts have argued about what, exactly, has contributed to Labour’s fall from grace. Some believe it was years of taking Scottish voters for granted – that Labour dined out for too long on the belief that constituency seats were safe and they could afford to focus all their attention on the more marginal seats across the rest of the UK. Others blame the switch in values from the original trade union Labour Party to New Labour and Tony Blair’s centrist policies, compounded by the unpopular decision to go to war in Iraq – a decision which left room for an opportunistic SNP to fill the gap.

Whatever the reason, it is clear Labour has failed to inspire Scottish voters and gain back their trust. This is despite multiple leaders over the past few years, each bringing with them their own vision for reinventing the party in a way which will win back voters and each failing in their endeavours.

During this time, Scottish Labour has become more and more fragmented. The arrival of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the national Labour Party and the appointment of his ally Richard Leonard as the leader in Scotland has split the party in two – with Corbyn’s allies standing in stark contrast to the more centrist MSPs, a fact characterised by Leonard being elected leader by the membership, despite the majority of MSPs voting against him.

Leonard’s leadership has been characterised by accusations he is turning Scottish Labour into a “regional office of the national Labour Party” rather than an autonomous branch which considers the unique reality of Scottish politics. He has failed to unite the party under his leadership and this has meant several high-profile leaks from group WhatsApp messages, meetings and briefings.

This may be why he decided to stamp his authority on Scottish Labour once and for all by sacking two of his most prominent – and centre left – front benchers, Anas Sarwar and Jackie Baillie. In doing so, Leonard also appointed Neil Findlay, a veteran member of the Labour left, to the role of Business Manager, and also promoted Alex Rowley – A controversial move as the former Deputy Leader had previously resigned from the frontbench after allegations of domestic abuse

By sacking Sarwar and Bailley, and appointing Findley, Richard Leonard is effectively surrounding himself with allies, hoping it will create more cohesion in policy discussions and stop leaks which are harmful to the party.

This may, however, backfire. Scottish Labour MSPs and staffers are not happy with this show of strength from Leonard and believe he has sacked two of his most talented MSPs. A simple search on Scottish Twitter shows prominent Labour figures lamenting the decision, with one vocal campaigner describing his move as “the death of Scottish Labour” and “the purge of competency”. Others worry that instead of creating cohesion, Leonard has instead widened the gap between the left of the party and those towards the centre, proving he is unable to work with the majority of MSPs in his party. There is even speculation that instead of putting a stop to leaks, these will only intensify.

Whatever the outcome, one thing is clear: all is not well in Scottish Labour and unless the party manages to unite, there is a real danger Labour will never be the political force it once was in Scotland.


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