Saturday, 27 December 2014

Why Labour Lose

I was going to write a piece comparing the outcome of the Independence Referendum and the resulting, spectacular, demise of the 'Scottish' Labour Party in its aftermath. 

My plan was to find constitutional referenda in the European Union which were close, and which resulted in the 'winning' side being obliterated at the subsequent election, and to perhaps assess, using these data, how long it might take the 'Scottish' Labour Party (Address: One Brewer's Green, London, S.W.1 - one does rather hope they don't go home for lunch) to recover from their disastrous coalition with the Conservative Party and UKIP.

The four criteria I set upon to reflect Scotland's referendum were simple: 

i) The referendum and subsequent election must take place within a democratic framework - so, for instance, I rejected the use of the Greek Constitutional Referendum of 1968 held by a military regime, which was ratified by a pragmatic, sensible and not-at-all scared 92,1% of the electorate.

ii) The referendum had to be close (are you a Scottish newspaper? Then, for 'close', read 'bitter and divisive, and continue for a thousand words about how political debate threatening the established order is evil and negative), ideally around the 10% gap produced by the Scottish electorate in September. Thus, e.g., I rejected the Icelandic referendum of 2010 which was rejected by 98,1% of the voters.

iii) The referendum had to occur in the modern era to reflect the particular circumstances in which modern Scotland finds its campaigning: the collapse of trust in newspapers and the broadcast media and the huge rise in importance of social media in modern campaigning meant, alas, that regardless of how fascinating the Norwegian Constitutional Referendum of 1905 was, it would not fall within my remit. 

iv) The referendum had to be called by the government of the day, and had to be defeated by either a single opposition party or a coalition of opposition parties - so Bulgaria's referendum last year on nuclear power, called by the opposition Socialist Party, didn't count in my calculations.

Thus armed with my frame of reference, I set out to find out when 'Scottish' Labour (Brewer's etc. etc.)  could possible expect to recover. 

And guess what - I couldn't. 

I actually had to switch the goalposts - not, perhaps, to the musteline extent which so distressed Owen Patterson - to produce a result.

There is a surprising lack of results even so: there was not a single constitutional referendum in modern Europe in which the main/nominal centre-left party supported a right-wing government in a closely-contested referendum campaign, won, and went on to form the government after the next election.

Results which don't quite fit the criteria but are still notable in our context:
  • In Finland in 1994, a vote on membership of the EU was won by 56,9% to 43,1% by the Governing Centre Party, who were promptly reduced to less than 20% of the vote at the subsequent election, losing power to a Social Democratic Party achieving the best result of any political party in Finland. 

  • The French UMP (conservative) government held a referendum in 2005 on the European Constitution which was defeated by 55% to 45%. Notably, the opposition Socialist Party held an internal referendum to decide its stance on the referendum (the Oui side was fronted by a future President, the Non side by a former Prime Minister).It is for history to decide if such a process would have avoided the exodus of members from Labour in light of the campaign in Scotland, but my feeling is that the resentment felt against the leadership of the 'Scottish party' internally at what amounts to a constitutional coup without reference to the membership cannot do other than cause ill-feeling within Labour. While this sort-of fits the criteria as a the main opposition party supporting the sovereign government on a constitutional referendum, it rather falls down as the political-class coalition was defeated. There wasn't a situation where one party was seen to be grudgingly whipping its voters along to a result they didn't particularly want, as there is now in Scotland.

  • It is a great Irish tradition to hold a constitutional referendum every third Tuesday. For our purposes, the referendum on the 30th Amendment (on the Fiscal Pact), which was passed in 2012 by 60,4% against 39,6%, is the closest to ours, albeit not in importance. Despite the scale of the victory - which still doesn't come close to the 2:1 margin the No parties in Scotland often claim they won by - the party proponents of a No vote  - all of which may be described as the establishment parties (c.f. in Scotland, the Westminster Parties) - have seen their support dwindle in the opinion polls, whilst the left-wing parties which opposed it have enjoyed unprecedented rises in support. 

  • The Danish euro referendum in 2000 saw Yes (to EMU) defeated by 46,8% to 53,2%. The far-left supported and won a No vote. In the subsequent election, the Social Democrats were swept from power, having shared a referendum platform with the Conservatives and Liberals. 


In Scotland, the Labour Party is suffering because it is in a position unique in Europe. Politically, it was of major importance in Scotland, whilst constitutionally, it is now barely of any importance at all. Labour is neither in Government in Holyrood nor Westminster, whilst in the latter it does not even enjoy the position of the second most-important party, which is the junior coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats.

News of Labour's poll ratings in Scotland
reaches Clive The Dug
There are no Labour ministers in the Cabinet, nor in the Westminster Government. Not even a European Commissioner to provide a modicum of relevance. It appears unlikely that Labour will ever be in government in Scotland after the 2016 elections, such is the Fianna F√°ilisation of the party, and it is a near certainty that they will never be a single-party majority government, either in Holyrood or Westminster. The very best-case scenario for Labour in Scotland, therefore, is that they are out of power from 2007 to - at the very least - 2020, and much more likely 2025. A party which has no chance of power for the best part of 20 years is a party which has little chance of survival - and given that it looks increasingly likely that independence has been deferred, not defeated, Labour may only be nearing its cycle of irrelevance in 2025, in a Scotland which has become independent and in which Labour is seen as something of a national enemy, perhaps analogous to the Latvian Russian Union. 

It is a loud voice in Scottish politics, but one of no legislative relevance. Its most senior elected representative in Scotland is the leader of the Labour group on Glasgow City Council. It found itself campaigning on the side of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Coalition government; on the side of the CBI, the BBC, the USA and the BNP. 

Where in the 2011 Scottish election and the 2010 election in Scotland they were fishing in a pool of a broadly centre-left electorate (i.e. the entire electorate minus the 10-20% of Conservatives), there are now 45% of the Scottish electorate which will not countenance - ever - voting for the Labour Party under any circumstances, the vast majority of whom are in what used to be Labour heartlands in Glasgow, Lanarkshire and Dundee. They now have a pool of voters of only 55% - but still excluding that 10-20% of voters who are committed Conservatives who would not under any circumstances vote Labour. 

Thus, within four years they have gone from knowing if they got a majority of the 80% of the Scottish electorate who might consider voting for them that they would probably be in power to realising suddenly that they have to win almost all of a vastly-shrunken pool of between 35-45% of the electorate to have any chance of being in government.

It's no surprise that the charmless Jim Murphy is writing in the Daily Mail - a pro-Apartheid, Tory newspaper - demanding that the Scottish electorate puts all this nonsense about the referendum behind us and gets back to voting Labour. 

Make no mistake about it - the referendum and its aftermath has rattled the British political class to an extent to which they have never been rattled before. They are out of their comfort zone and they don't know how to react. That's why Gordon Brown wants to 'reset Scottish politics' to a time before Labour became anathema to half the population; why Murphy wants us all to forget Labour's three-year campaign for the right of the Conservative Party to govern Scotland regardless of the fact we consistently reject the Tories. 


  1. It is a loud voice in Scottish politics, but one of no legislative relevance. Its most "senior elected representative in Scotland is the leader of the Labour group on Glasgow City Council. It found itself campaigning on the side of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Coalition government; on the side of the CBI, the BBC, the USA and the BNP. "

    You missed out the Orange Order, who just last week had a Xmas Walk, (me neither).

  2. ... and, for that matter, UKIP and Peter Robinson..

    Great piece. A lot of work went into it,. Thank you.

  3. Fine piece of research and analysis. Conclusions reinforce what many informed observers have been saying...