As the dust settles on the 2016 Scottish Parliamentary election, the political parties can begin to reflect on an extraordinary set of results. For the Scottish Labour party, once the dominant force in Scottish politics, the election was nothing short of a disaster.
Scottish Labour – battered, bruised, and humiliated- must now come to terms with their worst ever performance in a Scottish Parliamentary election. Among the soul searching, and the spin, there are some uncomfortable truths for Labour. The cold hard facts show that Labour have been pushed into third place by the Conservatives. Evidently the Conservatives are a resurgent force under the charismatic and canny leadership of Ruth Davidson, but to finish third behind the Tories is an extraordinary development which emphasises the extent of the collapse in the Labour vote. Indeed, the statistics are telling: the total number of Labour’s MSP’s has been reduced from 37 to 24; the party’s leader, Kezia Dugdale, personally had to rely on the regional list to remain elected; and just like in the 2015 general election, Labour has once again been eclipsed by the SNP across its former heartlands. Clearly Labour are in trouble and they risk now the very real prospect of reaching a point of no return. Yet perhaps the most depressing fact for Labour is that many of their woes have been self-inflicted.
The battle for second place was a crucial target for Labour in the election campaign, and they needed to win it to allay claims they were facing irrelevance in Scotland. Yet Labour fundamentally miscalculated their strategy and, in the process, the mood of the electorate. While the Conservatives quickly identified- accurately it turns out- the constitution as the new cleavage along which voters align themselves, Labour resolutely stuck to the traditional politics of left versus right. Furthermore, when they did address constitutional matters they seemed unsure where they stood. Kezia Dugdale equivocating on the topic of independence is to be seen as a defining moment in the election campaign, and a fatal mistake for Labour. Such indecisiveness does not win elections.
The reality is that Labour were fundamentally outmanoeuvred by both the SNP and the Conservatives. The former, we know are nationalists. The latter, it is clear, are unionists. Where do Labour stand on this new dividing line of Scottish Politics? The reality is that the party does not appear to know the answer to this crucial question, and until it does it cannot hope to progress. It is not just Labour’s failure to adapt to the shifting sands of Scottish politics that presents a problem for the party. There is also a growing perception- warranted or not- that Labour is increasingly out of touch with the electorate it wishes to govern. The danger of course is that the mud sticks, and perhaps the humbling of Labour in the Scottish election indicates that it already has.
The likelihood is that Kezia Dugdale will continue to lead Labour for the immediate future- there is simply not an appetite for yet another change in leadership within the party- and she must now seek to create a Labour party that resonates once more with the electorate. This will be no easy task. Indeed, identifying a problem is one thing, remedying it is an altogether more challenging task. It will be a long road back for Labour in Scotland.