For as long as most of us can remember, Labour governed Scotland with seemingly impenetrable heartlands in the country’s major cities and industrial centres. In the 2010 General Election, the party performed well, holding all its Westminster seats despite collapse across the rest of Britain. And as recently as ten months ago the party appeared on course to return to power at Holyrood, with new UK party leader Ed Milliband claiming it would be a prelude to a UK-wide recovery.
These days though it seems hardly credible as the opposition in Holyrood, with no leader and at risk of getting left behind on the key issues facing the country. Our latest poll highlights the party’s decline
. In voting intention for Holyrood, the party now trails the SNP by more than 20 points, while even for Westminster, where the party has traditionally polled more strongly, it trails the nationalists by nine points.
Our analysis of the SNP landslide and Labour’s collapse in May 2011
showed that the SNP outperformed Labour in terms of having a leader and a set of policies which resonated with voters. These issues are at the forefront of the current review of the Scottish party being undertaken by East Renfrewshire MP Jim Murphy.
The leadership issue is problematic for the party. Alex Salmond is more popular than ever (62% satisfaction rating in our most recent poll) and his status is unrivalled in the Scottish Parliament. Labour’s near wipe-out in May 2011 has left it without a natural successor from within its depleted ranks of MSPs to effectively challenge Alex Salmond. With all of Labour’s Scottish ‘big guns’ residing in Westminster, it remains to be seen whether any of them might be tempted back to Edinburgh to revive the Scottish party. With the Scottish Liberal Democrats having chosen a new leader and the Scottish Tories having a high-profile contest to succeed Annabel Goldie, the absence of leadership in Labour is likely to become increasingly apparent.
The party must also develop a set of distinctive Scottish policies which appeal to the Scottish electorate. In particular, with a referendum on the constitutional future of the country promised during this session, it must articulate a position on independence and greater fiscal powers for Holyrood. The debate on these issues is ongoing within the other political parties and the Scottish people clearly support greater tax-raising powers for the Scottish Parliament, if not full independence from the rest of the UK.
Labour risks being left behind on these key issues as other parties put their case to the voters.
Mark Diffley is a Research Director at Ipsos MORI Scotland.