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Can Labour’s Scottish recovery continue?

3rd October 2017

The outcome of this year’s General Election in Scotland came as welcome relief to Scottish Labour. Entering the contest with only one Scottish MP, the party gained a further six. Progress then? Well yes, but can it continue?

Labour’s recovery has been halted, at least temporarily, by the resignation of Kezia Dugdale.

Current bookie’s favourite to succeed Dugdale is Richard Leonard. Formerly a trade union organiser for the GMB, Leonard is the left wing candidate and is attracting the support of the majority of trade unions and is endorsed by his colleague left wing MSPs. His pitch is for bold and radical change, arguing that Scottish Labour cannot continue to “tinker around the edges”.

So would moving Labour leftwards guarantee electoral success in 2021? Not according to Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University. He argues that, while late in the 2017 campaign, Labour “north of the border like Labour south of the border began to mobilise younger voters. But nobody has yet proven that the mobilisation of young voters was because they are particularly left wing”. He contends that Labour’s real competition for votes will be around the socially liberal rather than the left wing views of Scots. And in that area Labour will face competition from the Liberal Democrats, the SNP and Ruth Davidson’s revitalised Conservative Party.

Labour will go into the 2021 election committed to raising taxes. Indeed in a recent Holyrood debate, along with Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party supported the principle of raising income tax to improve public services, while the SNP abstained. Not surprisingly the Conservatives opposed increasing tax and will go into the next election maintaining that position. So Scots could be faced with a choice of three or four parties supporting tax increases with the Conservatives the only party opposing. History tells us that it would be the Conservatives who would benefit from such a scenario.

But Leonard’s Achilles heel stems not just from his position on the political spectrum, but from the perception that if elected as leader he would be a “branch manager” for the UK party in Scotland – a phrase that gained currency when former leader Johann Lamont left office. And it may be more than a perception. On 7 February this year the Scottish Parliament debated an SNP motion effectively stating that Article 50 should not yet proceed. It was supported by the Green Party, the Liberal Democrats and Scottish Labour – barring Leonard and two of his left wing colleagues. They were taking their lead from Jeremy Corbyn’s position, seemingly oblivious to the point that Scottish politics is somewhat different from Westminster politics and thus requires a different response.

Should Leonard win, as the bookies odds now suggest, a Scottish Labour Leader more aligned to the UK party rather than the distinctive Scottish agenda would be a gift for the SNP.

The Nationalists have yet to attack Leonard, preferring to turn their fire on his opponent, Anas Sarwar. But should Leonard win, their first line of attack – and an effective one – is that he is more likely to listen to Corbyn than he is to Scotland.

These are the personal views of Keith Geddes, Policy Director at Pagoda Porter Novelli.