Is this the end of the Scottish Labour Party?

Once the establishment party in Scotland - sweeping all in election after election - Scottish Labour is facing defeat.

    When Scottish Labour campaigned for a "No" vote in Scotland's independence referendum in 2014, it alienated many of its formerly loyal, working-class supporters [Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images]
    When Scottish Labour campaigned for a "No" vote in Scotland's independence referendum in 2014, it alienated many of its formerly loyal, working-class supporters [Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images]

    Glasgow, Scotland - Few declines in Scottish political history have been as pronounced - and as politically seismic - as that suffered by the Scottish Labour Party.

    Once the establishment party in Scotland - which swept all before it in election after election - Scottish Labour is today, according to opinion polls, on track to suffer yet another heavy defeat in the Scottish Parliament election on May 5. 

    In modern Scotland, where the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) dominates, supporters of Scottish Labour have found little to cheer since the party first lost power to the SNP in the 2007 Scottish Parliament election.

    This defeat - by a solitary seat - was followed by its disastrous showing in the 2011 election, which saw the SNP win the Edinburgh-based parliament's first majority - an astonishing feat in an electoral system that was designed to prevent any one party from gaining outright control.

    And in the May 2015 UK general election for Westminster's House of Commons, it lost a staggering 40 seats to the SNP, which won 56 out of 59 Scottish constituencies.

    WATCH: Inside Story - Scotland: Could the Kingdom still be united?

    "I'm of a generation that grew up with Labour dominating Scottish politics," said Ewan Crawford, who was, from 2000 to 2004, private secretary to former SNP leader John Swinney, and who today works as a senior journalism lecturer at the University of the West of Scotland.

    "And therefore [Scottish Labour's poor fortunes] absolutely does surprise me - and there is sometimes an air of unreality about it when you think that it has only one member of the Westminster parliament [today]."

    History of Labour

    For decades - and most notably across the 1970s, 80s and 90s - Labour was a towering presence in Scottish political life. Before the advent of the 129-member Scottish Parliament in 1999, the party dominated both Scotland's political make-up at Westminster and its council (or municipal) authorities.

    Indeed, as the party of choice for legions of Scots at the ballot box, this left-wing movement gained prominence for railing against the rule of right-wing UK Conservative Party prime minister Margaret Thatcher who, in the eyes of her critics, presided over the destructive de-industrialisation of Britain during her 1979-90 premiership.

    After the foundation of the Scottish Parliament, Scottish Labour triumphed in the first two election campaigns and continued to send the bulk of Scotland's MPs down to Westminster - including in the 2010 UK general election - but cracks had already begun to show.

    Scottish academic and political commentator Gerry Hassan wrote in his blog piece, "The Rise and Fall of the House of Scottish Labour", last June, that "the party had little positive ideas about what the [Scottish Parliament] was for" in Scotland's new political era of devolved government.

    "Instead, it saw it in negative terms - to prevent Thatcherism being imposed on Scotland, to block the [SNP] and to maintain the Labour self-perpetuating state and dominance that had come to define the party's politics," he continued.

    While the party was given "the benefit of the doubt" by "large numbers of Scottish voters" during its peak years, penned Hassan, its electoral defeat of 2007 - which saw it win 46 seats to the SNP's 47 - put this grinding stagnation into plain sight.

    "I think Scottish Labour has only really woken up post-May 2015 - that's how much its head was in the sand," Simon Pia, a one-time media adviser - or "spin doctor" - to two former Scottish Labour leaders at the Scottish parliament, told Al Jazeera.

    'Unapologetically pro-union'

    For most observers, Scottish Labour was fatally undermined by its decision to campaign alongside its bitter rivals, the Scottish Conservative Party, for a "No" to independence vote in the lead up to the September 18, 2014 Scottish independence referendum.

    The alliance, termed Better Together, may have defeated the SNP-backed "Yes" campaign by 55 to 45 percent, but vast swaths of Scottish Labour's once-loyal working-class support abandoned the pro-unionist party in favour of a "Yes" vote.

    Even Scotland's largest city, Glasgow, a bastion of Labour support for generations, voted for independence.

    Hassan told Al Jazeera that Scottish Labour's decision to join forces with the Scottish Conservatives - the Scottish wing of the main Conservative Party based at Westminster - was "a tipping point" for the party.

    "This [decision] was more about a party that had lost its way … and because they didn't have a proper message for the Scottish Parliament, they ended up not having a distinctive Labour message on the [United Kingdom] union," said Hassan.

    WATCH: Labour party roundly defeated in Scotland vote

    "The Conservatives have a distinctive message on the union - it's unapologetically [pro-union], clear and plays to a certain constituency in Scotland."

    A Scottish Labour revival?

    Opponents of the SNP have accused the party of complacency.

    Crawford, however, told Al Jazeera that it would be a forlorn wait for Scottish Labour should it hope that the SNP takes its position for granted as it looks to secure a third successive Scottish Parliament election victory.

    "The current SNP leadership - which is still fairly young - was forged in defeat," stated Crawford, who took a leave of absence from academia to work as a special adviser to the SNP-led Scottish government during the independence referendum campaign.

    "The 1999 and 2003 [Scottish Parliament] election defeats are still very strong in the SNP [mindset] and therefore they will always fight elections extremely strongly because they don't have a history of winning time and time and time again."

    Pia contends that any success for Scottish Labour lies with setting out a bolder vision for the future.

    That is, outflanking the SNP on the left and getting back to its real social democratic roots with a view to winning back those many supporters who have since flocked to the left-of-centre nationalist force.

    Yet, for a Scottish Labour Party that is on to its sixth leader since 2007 - Kezia Dugdale won its latest leadership election last August - its immediate concern is fending off the challenge from the Scottish Conservatives and Scotland's main opposition.

    "Not going into third place and remaining the second party - that's how low the bar is and that's the brutal reality - the bar is very low," said Pia of an election that could see Scottish Labour's current tally of 37 seats erode even further on May 5 if the polls prove correct.

    "Realistically … it's still having at least 20 seats on which to try and build."

    Follow Alasdair Soussi on Twitter: @AlasdairSoussi

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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