9 Dec 2014

Scottish Labour leadership contest and the general election

Voting in the race to be leader of the Scottish Labour party closes tomorrow and some claim echoes of the 2010 battle of the Miliband brothers in the Scottish contest.

David Miliband’s then campaign manager Jim Murphy MP thinks the unions are playing dirty to defeat him, just as he believes they did back in 2010 – monstering their own electorate with bossy leaflets backing his opponent that shake out of the envelope with the ballot paper. The unions’ members still have one third of the electoral college that elects the leader in Scotland, a device that was done away with for UK leader elections by Ed Miliband as part of his party reforms.

The man the union literature tells you to back, Neil Findlay MSP, believes he is closing in on the front-runner Murphy. Some of his supporters say he could yet, Ed Miliband-style, sneak victory when the votes are announced on Saturday. He thinks he was disadvantaged by the way nominating MPs and MSPs were named in the documents sent out to constituency members, boosting Jim Murphy’s standing.

Low turnout

But the truth is that this was always Jim Murphy’s contest to lose and he’s unlikely to do that. He has been tacking to the left from his old Blairite positions and shows every sign of planning to continue with that if he wins.

But what of the health of the party he and Neil Findlay are fighting to lead? (The third candidate, MSP Sarah Boyack, isn’t expected to poll very strongly.) One indication of that is turnout in this leadership election and I understand that turnout in the trade union section of the electoral college could be less than 10 per cent.

Masses of trade unionists in Scotland didn’t think the leadership of the party of the labour movement was worth the 30 seconds it might take to mark a ballot paper and seal a pre-paid envelope.

The turnout in the members’ section will be significantly better but some think it could reveal (if it was ever shared in absolute numbers) that Labour does not have anything like the 13,000 members it claims to have across Scotland.

‘Serious danger’

Paul Sinclair was top adviser to the leader of the Scottish Labour party Johann Lamont for the past three years and has been at the heart of the Scottish Labour party. He watched the Labour machine try to crank into operation in the referendum campaign from the cockpit of the No campaign. He was an adviser to Gordon Brown in Number 10.

Tonight on Channel 4 News, he tells us he thinks the Labour party is in serious danger of coming second to the SNP in Scottish parliamentary seats at the general election. That, he thinks, could trigger a situation that plummets Labour into even greater decline in Scotland as its claim to be the only party that can keep the Tories out of power in Westminster takes another dent.

He believes the party’s senior figures in Scotland have been all too happy to have low membership for years because it gave them the power to control events in a feuding and often inward-looking party.

Compare that with the meteoric membership surge of the SNP.

Last night, I visited an SNP branch meeting in Glasgow’s Kelvin ward. It sits in the Glasgow North Westminster constituency and is part of the old Hillhead seat that Roy Jenkins once won. It is psephologically famed for having the most educated electorate in the UK.


At a regular branch meeting last night, I watched members pour in from the cold outside. About 120 people were there and when I asked for a show of hands the vast bulk of them had joined since the referendum.

The membership numbers for this ward have rocketed from 310 on polling day in September to 1734 today. That’s a ward, a subset of a Westminster constituency, not the entire seat. How many members does Labour have in this whole seat? “They’ll claim it’s 200 but I bet it’s closer to 50 who are actually active,” one Labour source told me.

Well, if anyone ever gets back to me with official numbers for Labour membership in this constituency, I’ll let you know with an update at the bottom of this blog.


And, if you were wondering whether the less bookish citizens of Glasgow are following this trend, I wandered around Maryhill, just up the road, a classic Labour heartland under the old analysis. Voter after voter described Labour as having betrayed them, left them. They won’t win here again was the gist of it.

They might be wrong. Labour might be able to fight back. The SNP’s boost in support could melt away like the snow now on the hills you can see from the top of the Maryhill tower blocks. But, even if half the SNP’s new members got bored and drifted off, they’d still outnumber Labour here massively.

If Labour does lose its perch as Scotland’s largest party in Westminster, it could have massive consequences for its credibility and confidence in Scotland. It could be Scotland that deprives Ed Miliband of a majority or largest party status in Westminster.

What strikes me in this supposed Labour heartland is that quite a lot of the voters I spoke to here don’t greatly care about that any more. Some newspapers printed in London may portray Ed Miliband (inter alia) as a dangerous radical. In Maryhill I more often heard him described as “just like the Tories”.

When he took over the leadership of Labour four years ago, Ed Miliband decreed that the revival of the party begins in Scotland.” It has actually gone into reverse since then. The new leader of the Scottish Labour party has a little more than 20 weeks from Saturday to turn that around and the stakes could not be higher.

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