What went wrong for Scottish Labour in 2011?

The Scottish Labour Party suffered a crushing defeat in the Scottish Parliament elections last week.  Despite their share of the constituency vote falling by less than 1% they lost a significant number of constituency’s across their traditional heartland in Central Scotland.  In some of their traditional safe constituencies they did lose some of their support while in others they still lost the seat despite their percentage share of the vote increasing.  So, why did it all go so wrong for Labour in the 2011 Scottish Elections?

1.  They took the electorate for granted

For the last 50 years or so Central Scotland, especially to the west, has been an area that Scottish Labour could guarantee a win.  It’s where they would field their top candidates to ensure they were elected.  As the decades have went past Labour have become more and more complacent over these seats and have not been as active in the constituency at election time as they probably should have, instead concentrating their efforts on marginal seats that they already held and the marginal seats they wish to gain.  Not, a bad idea, but taking your electorate for granted is going to backfire on you one day and for Labour that was on 5 May 2011.

In my own Constituency, Cumbernauld and Kilsyth, it has often been said (as with many seats in the area) that anything you put up for election with a red rosette on would win and to an extent that was true.  In the run up to the election on 5 May 2011 I saw almost no sign of Labour until the final week of campaigning.  Indeed the SNP were out in the constituency within hours of nominations closing.  They had their boards up on lampposts around the constituency very quickly and for the majority they and the Scottish Christian Party were the only ones with anything up in the constituency.  In the end there was a 10.8% swing from Labour to the SNP and Jamie Hepburn was elected as the MSP for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth unseating Cathie Craiggie.

This has been a painful lesson for Labour to learn and they need to think carefully how they can avoid making the same mistakes in the future.  Local Council elections are only 12 months away and Labour could see their council presence almost disappear if they do not rectify this before then.

2.  They failed to attract the Lib Dem Vote

It’s been abundantly clear since the day Nick Clegg and David Cameron appeared together as Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister that the Liberal Democrats were going to face a serious meltdown in their electoral success.  With each decision that has been taken from the increase in tuition fees they promised they would fight against to the painful and deep public sector spending cuts the level of support the Liberal Democrats have had has fallen dramatically.  Any campaign manager should have known that this vote was up for grabs and part of the campaign must focus on attracting this vote to them.

The 2011 Scottish election results suggest that the SNP were the main benefactors of the Lib Dem meltdown.  In a number of constituencies the SNP vote increased almost by as much as the Lib Dem vote had decreased.  Why did Labour fail to pick up the Lib Dem vote?  Well, there are probably a number of reasons, but where they had even failed to campaign locally it’s reasonable to suggest that they didn’t pick it up because they simply didn’t try.

3. Iain Gray

The SNP very quickly turned the campaign into a presidential style campaign focusing on Alex Salmond’s attributes that would make him a good First Minister.  Salmond is very articulate and has a sharp wit and intellect.  Iain Gray on the other hand is a poor public orator and is not quite as quick off the mark as Salmond is when it comes to engaging wit and intellect into debate and discussion.

Throughout the campaign Gray made several gaffs and errors that painted him in a poor light.  An example of that could be when he ran away and hid in a Subway outlet from members of the electorate who came to challenge him.  The press was full of story after story of Gray apparently running away – that will not have given the electorate much confidence in Gray’s qualities as a leader.

During the televised leaders’ debates Gray performed very poorly indeed.  He kept flip-flopping about the place, stumbling and backtracking.  Meanwhile Alex Salmond was his usual articulate self and came across as being very confident and sure of himself and his policies.  It really was only between Gray and Salmond as to who was going to be Scotland’s next First Minister (there being only one seat between the two parties in the 2007-2011 Parliament).

In terms of who will replace Iain Gray that is a difficult thing to predict.  There isn’t really anyone in the Labour Group who could stand as a match against Alex Salmond or even Nicola Sturgeon.  Scottish Labour is in big trouble.  Most of Scottish labour’s capable politicians are down in London and with no safe seats to parachute into the Scottish Parliament a suitable alternative they may end up having to go with someone wholly inadequate or try and persuade one of the Scottish Labour MPs to run Scottish Labour from Westminster until such times as they can be elected into the Scottish Parliament and put a deputy up against Alex Salmond each week (much like the SNP did between 2004 and 2007 when Alex Salmond was an MP rather than an MSP).  The decision lies with the Labour Group in Edinburgh and neither is really a good option for them!

4.  The Campaign

There were a huge number of problems with the campaign ran by Scottish Labour nationally.  Many commentators have described it as a negative campaign and that would probably be a fair description of it.  While he SNP was positive and upbeat about Scotland and the Parliament Labour was the antithesis.

In the final week of the campaign Labour changed its tact and started focusing on the question of Independence.  Prior to this there had been very little nationally about the constitution and indeed it really was a non-issue.  The SNP obviously stand for an independent Scotland, but they were campaigning for a referendum on Scottish Independence and really it’s not something a party that describes themselves as a “social democratic” party can justify being against (a referendum that is).  This was just one of the many changes the Labour campaign suffered throughout the 7 weeks it lasted.

Labour constantly tried to match the SNP policy for policy which was a big mistake.  In the end there was very little between the two parties and with the SNP fighting a presidential style campaign that was a disaster for Labour.  With nothing of real substance different between the two parties the winner was always going to be the one with the better leader (see point 3).

Another mistake for Labour was focusing on justice.  The SNP has, on the whole, done fairly well in terms of justice.  More police on the streets (well, more police employed but whether they are actually on the streets is a separate question), lower crime figures, longer jail sentences and people generally feel safer.  They key policy on justice for Labour was the mandatory jail sentence of knife crime and this was a mistake.  It was an unworkable policy that made them look incapable in terms of justice.  Had they fought justice on the basis of the very real need for a root and branch review of the Scottish Criminal Justice system they may well have faired better.  Indeed had they fought on the idea of changing sentencing to make it much more transparent and easier for the public to understand, as their Justice spokesperson argued for, then they may well have managed to outshine the SNP on manifesto commitments in terms of Justice.

5. Lack of a second vote strategy

The Labour party has never really viewed Regional MSPs elected under the second vote list system with great merit often viewing them as second class MSPs.  They’ve never really had to rely on the list system either because traditionally they’ve done well enough in the constituency vote that they picked up very few MSPs on the list.

Other party’s in the Scottish Parliament have went into elections with detailed second vote strategy’s which include having their top candidates on the list as well as in constituency’s and actively campaigning for people’s second vote.

Labour has generally not placed people on the regional list who were also standing as candidates in constituencies and this backfired on them when their big politicians failed to be elected in their constituencies – there was no “backdoor way” into the Scottish Parliament for them.  This point somewhat ties in with point number 1.  They clearly did not anticipate that they could lose in the constituency vote – they took it for granted and were complacent.

The second issue with the lack of a second vote is they were not pushing for people to vote for them in the list vote.  The SNP had its “both votes SNP” campaign running which encouraged people to vote for the SNP in both votes.  This way if they failed in the constituency they still had a chance of redeeming themselves in the list vote.  This helped them significantly gain an overall majority as they had so many second votes that the “punishment mechanism” that exists within the list vote to balance out Parliament was ineffective.  It didn’t matter how high the SNPs deviser was they had so many list votes that they were still going to pick up seats out of that vote even where they had excelled in the constituency vote.

In the end almost 60% of Labour MSPs elected in 2011 came from Regional lists (in 2007 only 20% of Labour MSPs were elected this way).  In future Labour will have to pay much more attention to the list vote and will need to develop a strategy, including putting their big names on the list to ensure they remain in Parliament if they fail in the constituencies!


This blog post is not by any means an exhaustive list of the reasons why Labour did so poorly in Scotland, nor is it an exhaustive examination of the factors identified.  To cover that would result in a thesis rather than a blog post.  The Scottish Labour Party has a huge task in front of it and it needs to move fast if it doesn’t want to suffer the same crushing defeat next year when Scotland once again goes to the polls to elect its local councillors.