The Poor Opposition Parties of Scotland

By Ryan Morrice

The next general election is a few weeks away and the dominant party in Scotland, the Scottish National Party (SNP), look set for another strong performance. Polls predict they will take a majority of seats in Scotland again. Their performance is impressive for a party that has been in power in the Scottish Parliament for over 10 years now. Their continued electoral strength carries big implications: winning another majority will help give them justification for their calls for a second independence referendum. Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party will also need their support to form a government, giving the SNP more power in the UK parliament.

The opposition parties of Scotland then, largely the Scottish Conservatives and Scottish Labour, have strong incentive to prevent another victory by the SNP. Alas, a strong incentive to do well has not helped the opposition parties to do any better. The Scottish Conservatives have lost their best leader after Ruth Davidson resigned in August. Scandals have made things worse for them: their MP for Aberdeen South, Ross Thomson, resigned after he was accused of groping another MP in the Commons bar; their candidates in the upcoming election for Aberdeen North and Glasgow Central have been suspended over alleged Islamophobic language and other offensive comments.

Scottish Labour is not looking much better. Their leader, Richard Leonard, struggles to make himself known; a poll in March this year found that only 37% of Labour voters in Scotland knew he was leader—even though he had been in the job since November 2017. They have also faced confusion over their stance on a second independence referendum. While the Tories have always been firmly opposed to it, a disagreement between Scottish Labour and UK Labour left their policy muddled for much of this year. All of this has meant they are badly trailing in the polls.

There are two common problems which hold all the Scottish opposition parties back. The first problem is that they suffer from a lack of quality leadership. Scottish Labour has the ineffective Richard Leonard. On the other end, the Scottish Conservatives’ acting leader is Jackson Carlaw (there has yet to be an election for a new leader after Ruth Davidson quit). He lacks charisma and personality in comparison to Ruth Davidson and does not have any other redeeming qualities.

There is no easy way to attract new talent and vigour into a party. Focusing from the ground up might be a good start. Scottish Labour has only 21,162 members; the Scottish Conservatives do not say how many members they have, but it is likely that they are a good deal off the SNP’s 125,534 members. More members would boost the talent and ideas the opposition parties could draw from, as well as improve their ability to engage with and canvass voters in elections.

The second common problem is that their ties to their respective national parties limits their ability to focus on Scottish voters. For the Tories, this has hurt them as the party under Boris Johnson has veered stronger towards Brexit while Scotland voted 62% to remain in the 2016 referendum. They will pick up most of the leave vote in Scotland, but will be hard-pressed to ever come close to winning a majority. For Labour, as already mentioned, they have been hurt by their indecisiveness over their stance on a second independence referendum. Scottish Labour also struggles to make itself distinct from UK Labour. Their manifesto for the upcoming election reads more like what UK Labour would do for Scotland rather than what Scottish Labour would do for Scotland.

Both Scottish parties would have more potential to choose the policies best for Scotland if they were formally separate from the UK parties. Before the Unionist party merged with the Conservative party in 1965, they had much stronger and consistent electoral performance in Scotland than today’s Scottish Conservatives have ever managed. There is no reason why they cannot achieve this again.

More importantly, the opposition parties also need to engage with Scottish nationalism. The success of the SNP in the last decade has permanently strengthened Scottish nationalism. Rejecting it entirely, as the Scottish Tories and Labour do when they promote unionism, prevents them from winning over a majority of Scottish voters. But Scottish nationalism does not have to be at odds with unionism—any of the opposition parties could stand for a stronger Scottish Parliament with more devolved powers while also supporting Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom. If the Scottish opposition parties can achieve success and boot the SNP from power, then they would be able to quash the question of independence. But if they continue to do poorly, then their failure will only mean that calls for Scottish independence never go away.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not represent the views of The St Andrews Economist

(Image source: Julia Solonina)

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