Shifting Scottish Labour further to the left under Richard Leonard’s leadership is unlikely to lead to a dramatic resurgence of the party’s fortunes, a leading political analyst has warned.
The polling expert Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University believes that despite the Jeremy Corbyn effect leading to a Labour revival at the general election, attempts to outflank the SNP on the left would have limited success.
Having studied voter behaviour at the June general election which saw Theresa May cling on to power in the face of a Corbyn-inspired revival, Curtice said Scottish Labour still faced a major battle to take votes from the SNP.
Leonard, a former trade union organiser and the favoured candidate of the left, has emerged as the clear favourite in his battle with the more moderate Anas Sarwar to replace Kezia Dugdale.
Those on the left of the party believe Leonard will be able to capitalise on the Corbyn-effect north of the border by underlining the party’s left- wing credentials.
They have been encouraged by the general election result where Corbyn’s left-wing approach was credited with Scottish Labour delivering a better than expected result in Scotland. Having almost been wiped out in 2015, Scottish Labour held on to its Edinburgh South seat and emerged victorious in six others.
Curtice, however, questioned whether that mini-revival was down to attracting left-wing supporters.
“It is certainly true that late in the campaign Labour north of the border like Labour south of the border began to mobilise younger voters. But nobody has yet proven north or south of the border that the mobilisation of young voters was necessarily because they are particularly left-wing,” Curtice said.
He said that a lot of Labour’s success could be attributed to people who had not previously voted deciding to support Corbyn and Dugdale.
The socially liberal rather than left-wing preferences of Scottish voters mean many are attracted to the SNP, creating an extra layer of competition for Labour in Scotland, he argued.
Curtice said: “The problem for the party north of the Border is that it does have competition for the socially liberal votes.” Analysis suggests that the SNP’s poor show in the general election, losing one third of its seats, was down to EU Leave voters deserting the party. The nationalists, however, hung on to their Remain voters, suggesting many socially liberal voters still regarded the SNP as their natural home.
Furthermore, according to Curtice, Labour also faces competition from the resurgent Scottish Tories for the socially liberal vote.
“If indeed, that analysis is correct, Labour becoming more left-wing in Scotland may not be sufficient,” Curtice said. The constitutional question will also have a huge impact on votes, he added. Support for Scottish independence had been linked to the idea that going it alone would enable a fairer society to be created in Scotland.
Voters had crossed from Labour to the SNP in the hope of achieving greater equality. The challenge for Scottish Labour was to persuade those voters that a more equal society is more likely to be delivered by the UK than an independent Scotland.
“One thing that has to be remembered is that support for independence may have eased slightly in the last two years, but it hasn’t fundamentally changed,” he said.
“I think the Labour Party would have to persuade that section of pro-independence support, which was attracted by the argument for more equality, that the UK state could be relied upon to deliver that in a way that the SNP and an independent Scotland could not.
“But in doing that, the Labour Party needs not just to persuade people that it is indeed to the left of the SNP but to persuade them of the case for staying within the UK and doing one without the other may not be sufficient.”