Stephen Wigmore, a PhD student in Ethics at Warwick University with a keen interest in politics and polling data, examines the SNP’s success and asks whether Jeremy Corbyn can repeat it across the UK.
For a party to collapse so utterly and apparently suddenly in a party ‘heartland’, as Scottish Labour did in 2015, is almost unprecedented in British democratic history. It is of huge importance to the current Scottish and UK leadership that it is understood in as much detail as possible.
This is particularly true in light of the sudden insurgency of Jeremy Corbyn, as his supporters frequently pray-in-aid the SNP victory to justify the idea that a radical left-wing insurgency can sweep to power.
Nor is the worst over for Scottish Labour: polls suggest Labour could slump to an even worse defeat in 2016 with the SNP polling well over 50% and turning their majority into a landslide. (1)
A lot of analysis of the 2015 result barely looks farther back than the 2014 referendum for its explanation. To understand how this could happen one needs to look back to at least 2007 if not earlier. Already in 2007 Labour polled only 32% in Scotland behind the SNP, albeit narrowly, who polled 33%. Then the SNP won the 2009 euro elections in Scotland for the first time ever. That was followed by Labour remarkably holding all its seats in the 2010 election on an increased share of the vote, but soon after came the catastrophe of 2011, then losing the euros again in 2014, and the near-annihilation of 2015 (not to mention SNP victories in the 2007 and 2012 local elections).
Seen in this recent historical context it becomes clear that 2010 was the blip, the anomaly. The SNP have won 4 out of 5 Scotland wide elections since 2005 on a pattern of steady or increasing support. If you only look at Westminster general election results then SLab support looks solid . . . 1997, 2001, 2005, 2010 and then falls off a cliff in 2015, but if you look at the wider context this surprise disappears.
2010 was to Scottish Labour what 1992 was to Major’s Conservatives. After winning in ’92 many clever people wrote articles about how Labour might never win again, and the Conservatives might be in government for ever. But within 12 months Major’s Tories were polling at 25% in the polls and would not win another election for 18 years. (2) 1992 was the electorate giving the Tories one last chance before they turned away for a generation, but the Tories misinterpreted it as confirmation of business as usual, that they could do whatever they wanted and still get elected. Big mistake. Scottish Labour misinterpreted 2010 in exactly the same way. In retrospect it is clear it was one last chance, but it was misinterpreted as a firm confirmation that SLab was on solid ground when in reality that ground was already disappearing beneath them.
What seemed to happen was a process, crudely put, of shifting from UK Westminster vote determining Holyrood preference in 1999 and 2003 to Scottish Holyrood preference determining Westminster vote in 2015, a process that hinged on the years around 2010 and was completed in 2015. This Scottish-ising of voting has occurred for many reasons but its biggest catalyst was certainly the 2014 referendum. The 2 year circus that lead up to the referendum was just the shove needed to definitively push formerly Labour voters, particularly those who may have voted SNP in 2007 and 2011 to vote SNP for Westminster as well.
Labour voters convinced by Nationalist rhetoric had no reason not to vote SNP. Particularly, as the SNP consciously went out of their way in the months leading up to May 2015 to portray themselves as a safe destination for Labour votes. They made a huge deal of making an absolute commitment to “lock Cameron out of No 10”, neutering Labour’s great fall back line that people had to vote Labour to “keep the Tories out”. (3)
Despite some of their rhetoric they also basically lifted large portions of their manifesto from Labour (the 50% top tax rate, bankers’ bonus tax, mansion tax, the abolition of ‘non-dom’ status, abolition of the bedroom tax and a cut in English tuition fees). Even the detail, rather than the rhetoric, of their public spending plan was almost identical to Labour’s as confirmed by the IFS. (4) The purpose of all this was to give ‘Yes’ voting previously Labour supporters no reason not to put their cross in the SNP’s box on polling day.
Another big factor was that of leadership over the last decade. Both Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon are charismatic, highly adept politicians. They come across as people who can ‘bring home the bacon’. This is not the only skill a politician needs but it is basically a precondition in the TV age. David Cameron also has charisma and a certain presence that a lot of people respond to, which is how he has stayed consistently more popular than his party.
Without meaning to be personally rude the same could not be said for either UK or Scottish Labour leaders since at least 2007. At various points throughout that period both UK and Scottish Labour leaders polled worse in Scotland than both the UK and Scottish Tory leaders on various questions of preference for First Minister or PM, despite Scotland’s supposed bone-deep Tory hatred. (5,6) They polled even worse in Scotland than the Tory leaders, and clear miles behind Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon at every point.
This was particularly a problem in 2015. A significant part of the explanation for the 2010 blip was that Gordon Brown was and is considerably more popular in Scotland than the rest of the UK, presumably partly because he is so Scottish. Ed Miliband on the other hand had Brown’s same lack of charisma with the additional disadvantage of being visibly a well-off London geek. Someone less likely to connect with the Glasgow working class is imaginable, but they’re not going to be SNP leader anytime soon.
This is part of the wider issue that Scottish Labour as a whole political party has just not been in any condition to fight the SNP for years. Scottish Labour has been a mess where the SNP were passionate, disciplined and ruthless. Sturgeon and Salmond have led the SNP for over a decade in total lock-step with each other, and with complete and disciplined support from their entire party that whole time. Even when they lost the independence referendum the SNP barely blinked before getting straight back to work demolishing Labour and the union.
Now Kezia Dugdale has been elected Scottish Labour leader the party has had 6 leaders in 8 years: 3 of whom quit after losing elections, one of whom resigned over a donations scandal, and one of whom quit by accusing her own UK leadership of having no respect for Scotland in a national newspaper six months months before the general election. The comparison could not be more stark, and every piece of evidence we have suggests voters punish parties that appear divided, disorganised or incompetent.
Scottish Labour has about 15,000 members in the whole country following the recent Labour membership surge; Scotland actually has the 2nd lowest rate of Labour party membership per head of population of any UK region. (7) The SNP, on the other hand, as everyone knows, have over 100,000 members, but that obscures the fact that the SNP have probably had more members than Scottish Labour since before 2010, admittedly by a much smaller margin. (8)
There is also significant anecdotal report that a culture had grown up whereby Labour councillors, MPs and leaders in parts of Scotland felt barely any need to campaign or to have members either, so used were they to winning almost by default. (9) This persisted right up until the moment the SNP steamroller appeared seemingly from nowhere and crushed them mercilessly.
So just to recap: the SNP offered Labour Yes-voters Labour policies plus better leadership, better organisation and agreement on the all important national question. What reason would any Labour Yes voter have had for sticking with Labour in 2015? Especially, when many of them had already started voting SNP in other elections well before austerity or the referendum dating back to 2007. This is not to say that any voter totally consciously made the choice on that basis, but it is these issues that have the impact on who sounds credible and ‘on your side’. And for 40% of formerly Labour voters it was not Scottish Labour.
This would have been bad enough but it was the SNP’s good fortune to also benefit from a collapse in the Lib Dem vote, brought about by the Lib Dem entry into the Coalition and a similar problem with Lib Dem ‘Yes’ voters. Without the former Lib Dem votes Labour would have gone into the 2015 election 12% behind the SNP and probably saved a dozen more seats. With the addition of those former Lib Dem votes they ended up 25% behind, turning a defeat into a landslide.
There were also issues surrounding Jim Murphy’s choice to make the centre of his campaign an anti-Tory message, rather than an anti-SNP message. Sturgeon only had to point out that SNP MPs were committed to voting down a Cameron government, and Murphy was reduced to arguing technicalities about who had the first stab at being PM. The average voter was bemused and those voters that they had already swapped to trusting Sturgeon more were predictably unmoved. These factors turned defeat into near annihilation, but even without them the longer term trends meant it would have taken a miracle to not see big Scottish Labour losses in 2015.
So far I have not even mentioned the popular theory that the SNP won in May 2015 because they had a stronger anti-austerity message. This is not because I want to argue it had no impact on the result. The reason is that while this explanation obviously has some merit (if only in terms of what rhetoric was used, as in reality SNP and Labour spending plans were very similar) it can only be a small part of a story that includes all the material and historical factors I have mentioned. Labour may win some votes back in Scotland by taking a stronger anti-austerity stance than the SNP but it can’t make the independence issue, nor the leadership issue, go away; nor the fact that the 2010 general election is the only election in which Scottish Labour has got more than 32% of the vote since 2005.
This is backed up by more recent evidence: the BES has found that the top reason for formerly-Labour Yes voters voting SNP was because they were convinced that they would be personally better off from independence. They have found that yes, 90% of anti-austerity Labour Yes voters swapped to the SNP, but so did 90% of pro-austerity Labour Yes voters. That is Labour Yes voters who thought austerity was necessary or good for the economy were just as likely to swap to the SNP as those who strongly opposed austerity, and in both cases basically all of them did swap to the SNP. (10)
So we come to the argument made by many of Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters that if an anti-austerity message led to an SNP landslide in Scotland it could do in England. The simple answer is no it couldn’t, because anti-austerity alone could never have produced a landslide even in Scotland without all these other factors, of which the single most important was certainly the two year independence campaign.
The SNP won because they managed to combine fiercely patriotic nationalism with being an economically respectable centre-left party with a charismatic, trusted leader in a country that has lent left and nationalist for decades. In Scotland the Conservatives and UKIP got 16.5% of the vote between them in 2015, almost exactly what they got in 2010. In England & Wales in 2015 they got 54% of the vote. The situation is not comparable.
Jeremy Corbyn may be many things, but a charismatic, economically respectable, fiercely patriotic nationalist he is not. If Jeremy Corbyn does produce a popular uprising in England and Wales (or Scotland) by some miracle, it will be for totally different reasons to those for SNP success in Scotland in May 2015.