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Why is Scottish Labour under-performing? Too fixated on Westminster?


The latest You Gov poll for Scotland on Sunday shows that the SNP are favourites to form the next Scottish Government — a dramatic turnaround from only a few weeks ago. It implies that the SNP could govern much more easily as a minority, or form a majority government with any party it chooses including the Greens. Scottish Labour performed comparatively very well last year in the General election — how has it managed to do so badly this time? Are Labour’s leaders too fixated on Westminster to win a Scottish election? Update: The latest Ipsos-MORI poll shows an even more dramatic SNP lead – just two short of a majority

According to John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, the poll would give the SNP 55 seats (up 8), Labour 49 (up 3), the Conservatives 14 (down 3), the LibDems 6 (down 10) and the Greens 5 (up 3). The detailed YouGov results (and some from two weeks ago) are as follows:

2007 Holyrood election 2010 General election 2011 YouGov 25-28 March 2011 YouGov 13-15 April 2011  Ipsos-  MORI 14-17 April
Con 17% 17% 11% 11% 10%
Lab 32% 42% 39% 37% 34%
LDem 16% 19% 5% 8% 9%
SNP 33% 20% 40% 40% 45%
Con 14% 12% 12% 10%
Lab 29% 39% 33% 32%
LDem 11% 5% 7% 8%
SNP 31% 32% 35% 42%
Green 4% 6% 6% 6%

Compared with the last Holyrood elections, Labour and the SNP are both well up, with the Westminster coalition parties losing, and a partial recovery for the Greens. However, what’s most worrying for Labour, even compared with two weeks earlier, is the drop in Labour support in the regional ballot — Labour has gone from +7% to -2% compared with the SNP, now10%.

One explanation, advanced by Scotland on Sunday, is that the SNP have turned the regional ballot into a contest for First Minister, with the SNP’s Alex Salmond preferred over Labour’s Iain Gray by half the electorate and only a third preferring Gray. Salmond certainly doesn’t arouse the personal animosity amongst the public that is does amongst Labour activists — he’s way ahead of his party.

Writer and commentator, Gerry Hassan, hailed by the Sunday Herald as ‘Scotland’s main public intellectual’, advances another explanation. Firstly, he talks of the several dimensions in which, he says,  this election is being contested:

First, there is the issue of who governs Scotland and who is seen as the most competent; second, the question of who is best placed to stand up and fight Scotland’s corner against the Tories; third, there is a general refusal of all Scotland’s parties to honestly address the age of austerity and coming public spending cuts, and finally, there is the epic next instalment of the Labour v SNP struggle.

The first contest has been the terrain of the SNP campaign, of telling a positive account of the last four years and emphasising its belief in the potential of Scotland. The second has been the ground of the Labour campaign – whose 96 page manifesto does not once mention the SNP – and even opens with the words, ‘Now that the Tories are back ….’

So the SNP are fighting for Scotland whilst Labour are fighting the UK Government in Westminster. That certainly would explain the gap between Labour and SNP voting shares in Westminster and Holyrood elections.

But there are other factors too, and a comparison between Scotland and Wales (where Labour is doing much better)  is instructive here.

Firstly Scottish Labour is wedded to its tribalism whilst Welsh Labour is no longer. It has been in coalition with Plaid for four years and, on the Left especially, through initiatives such as Celyn and anti-cuts campaigns, there is plenty of contact between activists in the two parties. It is very different in Scotland. Labour may get away with its tribalism in Westminster elections, but in the context of Scottish and Welsh elections, in which separatism is no longer an issue, it is increasingly unhelpful against what are now established Left of Centre parties. Scottish Labour does not share the “Clear Red Water” strategy of  Labour’s leaders in Wales, and its mockery of the SNP as “Tartan Tories”  is clearly none too convincing to the electorate.

Secondly, whilst the sights of Labour activists in both Scotland and Wales are firmly concentrated on their new national parliaments rather than Westminster, Scotland (unlike Wales) seems to send its leading politicians to Westminster. Whereas, Rhodri Morgan was happy to abandon Westminster for Cardiff, no leading Labour politician from Scotland was willing to do likewise. Symptom rather than cause, no doubt, but an indication of how fixated on Westminster is Scottish Labour’s unionist leadership.

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