Will the Mountain Come to Murphy?: The View from the Bottom of the Hill

So, Wednesday has come and gone, and so have the postal ballots for the Scottish Labour leadership. With the votes cast – and some late rumblings that perhaps Findlay can mount a challenge, despite Murphy’s attempt to slough his right wing skin to appeal to Scottish voters – we now have to wait until Saturday for the result.

I mentioned before that Labour had an electoral college system for the Scottish leadership, although they have a simple one member one vote system for the UK leadership. This means that the Scottish Labour leadership process has three separate ballots, each worth a third of the final tally, with the votes for the third place candidate being transferred once they are knocked out of the contest.

The first ballot is of the 80 Scottish Labour MPs, MEPs and MSPs . This will be interesting, as for the first time their individual votes will be made public. It seems to me that this would work in Westminster’s favour, as the most powerful scrutineer of who votes which way, and how this will affect their progress as career politicians for Labour, if they do not side with party central’s favoured candidate (who would certainly appear to be Murphy). Party central can, of course, award grace and favour for those who do ‘the right thing’ – let us not forget that Anas Sarwar’s sudden change of heart about staying on as Deputy Leader was swiftly followed by the announcement that he had been given a junior ministerial position in Westminster (Shadow Minister of State for International Development)

The second ballot involves quarter of a million members of affiliated trade unions and societies, and it is here that Findlay’s campaign team have been making noises about progress – although I have seen one estimate say that turnout in this section may be as low as 10%.

The final ballot is of party members in Scotland – which probably constitutes around 9,000, from previous estimates. The precise number has been a closely-guarded secret (probably because they don’t want to drop the strapline of ‘Scotland’s Biggest Party’), as it is rumoured to have been dropping significantly ever since their government placidly followed the US to its illegal war in Iraq: even before the post-Referendum surge in membership, the SNP could legitimately say that at 23,000 members, it had more members than all the other Scottish party political memberships combined.

For all three groups, it is likely that this will become a choice between a strong personality with right wing values (no matter how prepared he is to reinvent himself) to forcefully lead Scottish Labour, or someone more close to traditional Labour values in Scotland. Perhaps this is Scottish Labour’s last chance to try to reclaim its Soul, and stop the rot before May. The lucky winner (and their Deputy, Katy Clark or Kezia Dugdale) will have a mountain to climb in short order, in terms of winning back their support, in the hope of holding their current Westminster cache of MPs in what is looking like a very difficult May General Election for all parties, but particularly for Labour.

And the scale of that mountain to be climbed is significant: immediately after the Referendum, Labour had to come to terms with 37-40% of ‘their’ voters saying that they had voted ‘Yes’, and in the heartlands of Glasgow and Dundee it was even clear that over 50% of them had done so. But in the last 6 weeks, a series of polls have indicated that – far from simply being a momentary ‘Referendum wobble’ – much of their voter base is currently intending to abandon them in May.

I have talked about some of these figures before – when Electoral Calculus took STV’s IPSOS-MORI polling figures at the end of October and translated them into a (highly unlikely) uniform swing, that annihilated all but 4 Scottish Labour Westminster MPs (see post: Electoral Calculus and the New Gold Dream: 50, 51, 52…), giving the SNP 54 out of 59 Scottish seats at Westminster. This would be beyond remarkable as an achievement, as the SNP do not fare at all well under the First-Past-The-Post system: in 2010, getting half as many votes as Scottish Labour, they got 6 seats to Labour’s 41, yet the LibDems got almost twice as many seats (11), from fewer votes than the SNP; similarly, the Conservatives, with only 2% fewer votes than the LibDems, only achieved a single MP in Scotland.

This electoral projection came from voting intention figures gathered in an IPSOS-MORI survey between October 22nd and 29th, just as the leadership row broke with Lamont’s departure, the SNP polling 52% of the vote, and Labour polling 23% (Don’t Knows were excluded). That same week, YouGov obtained more cautious – but still apocalyptic – figures of 43% of the vote to the SNP, compared with 27% Labour, with the same ‘if there was a General Election tomorrow, how would you vote’ question for The Times. Using the same YouGov figures (corrected by 2010 turnout, they give SNP 40%, Labour 29%, Conservative 16%, UKIP 6%, LibDem 5%, Greens 4%) with the Westminster predictor at ScotlandVotes.com gave a perhaps more realistic prediction of SNP 36 seats to Labour 19, Conservative 2 (taking one from Michael Moore) and 2 for the LibDems (see: http://wingsoverscotland.com/2015-general-election-results-in/ ).

To an extent, the scale of these figures should be unsurprising, given that they were being predicted as far back as October 2013, when a Panelbase poll showed that in the event of a ‘No’ vote, Labour would do worse in Holyrood 2016 (compared with a ‘Yes’ result, where they would hold 55%), only retaining 47% of those who voted for them in 2016. Even further back, in December 2011, polls were already showing Westminster voting intentions as 51% for the SNP, with Labour even then trailing on 26% of the total vote share.

But there are a couple of things to note here. Firstly, YouGov appears to not be removing Don’t Knows from its final figures (and they seem to constitute around 11%) – and this would reduce the disparity between the topline percentages and somewhat harmonise the two (IPSOS-MORI and YouGov for that October week) polls. Secondly, YouGov has continued to ask this question over the ensuing weeks, and the SNP/Labour ratio has continued to grow (albeit slightly), with this week’s survey (conducted between December 2nd and the 9th) now giving the SNP 45.2% as against 24.6% for Labour.

But thirdly – and most importantly – all of the YouGov polls have taken place during the rudderless time for Scottish Labour. True, the gap between SNP and Labour has continued to grow over the weeks, but it is hard not to imagine that gap not starting to contract swiftly again (at least to some extent) once a figure is in position at the head of the party. To an extent, that would be regardless of who that figure was – but a personality helps give a party an appearance of purpose, in a way that the invisible and hesitant Johann Lamont (often rumoured to be hiding in the ‘Scottish Labour bunker’ during the Referendum campaign) never did. In this scenario, of course, the best fix for Scottish Labour is to have the media darling Murphy in position, so that the BBC can spend hours filming someone that they have heard of, and consolidate the image of him at the head of the party.

Again, it comes back to whether the three ballots want Scottish Labour to go back to its core values, or to appear strong with a right wing pro-Trident figurehead (although of course Jim will happily forget about his support for nuclear weapons on the Clyde in a heartbeat if it will keep him in power). Although ideologically Murphy may present the most problems for bringing the mountain of lost Scottish Labour voters back into the fold (as the rumblings of predicted trade unionist resignations from the Scottish Labour Party if he wins, testifies to), he will certainly give the party a strong identity and presence.

And an identity can be a good surrogate for actual strength – in the absence of any real fortitude.


“Both of Scottish Labour’s members will cast their vote in the next few weeks to decide who will lose to Nicola Sturgeon in the 2016 Holyrood elections.” (http://news.stv.tv/scotland-decides/analysis/297349-devomax-daily-stephen-daisley-on-johann-lamont-and-labours-new-leader/ )

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