Can Corbyn sustain Labour’s revival in Scotland?

Jeremy Corbyn is campaigning in a number of ‘winnable’ Scottish seats this week; despite the party exceeding expectations at the general election, the jury is still out on whether the party is on course for a return to its past dominance.

When Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour leader in September 2015, the view from Scotland was, as it so often is, split down the middle.

There were those who thought he was the left-wing panacea the party needed to reawaken its lost support, versus those, myself included, who thought his lack of a strong position on independence would render his impact insignificant among voters.

Two years and a general election on, we can begin to make some assessment of his impact, albeit with the caveat that the cause of impact elsewhere, not least in the leadership of the Scottish party under Kezia Dugdale.

In the positive column for the party was the unexpected gain of six seats in Scotland, putting them firmly back on the electoral map and stemming the ongoing loss of support at all elections since 2010.

Just as is evident in England, it is clear that this uptick in support came as a direct result of the election campaign and the policies which the party offered. In one poll, just before the election was called, the party was registering a paltry 13% support, a result which would have seen the party even lose its solo Edinburgh South victory in 2015.

So, against the doom and gloom which dominated the party as the election campaign began, achieving 27% of the vote share and seven seats is rightly seen as a triumph.

But there are reasons to be cautious over whether this represents the start of a more sustained fightback.

The first and most obvious point to make is that the party’s vote share only increased by 2.8 points form 2015, compared to the 10.3 points the party gained in England over the same period. The result certainly does not herald a return to the party’s preeminent status in Scotland.

Further, a closer look at the six new seats the party won reveals that, in most cases, it was a significant swing from the SNP to the Conservatives that allowed Labour to come through to win

How Labour’s six new Scottish seats were won

So, to some extent, Labour’s success in Scotland can be attributed to the performance of the Tories.

And the party faces other public opinion challenges. The extent to which Corbyn-mania is sweeping over Hadrian’s Wall is not clear. Even directly before the election, his personal ratings among Scottish voters were far from emphatic; YouGov recorded that 47% thought he was performing ‘badly’ (compared to 42% who said he was doing ‘well’) while Ipsos MORI reported 50% being ‘dissatisfied’ with Corbyn, compared to 37% who were ‘satisfied.’ Further, Ipsos MORI’s poll just before the election showed that fewer Scots (40%) saw Corbyn as a more capable PM than Theresa May (42%).

Of course, these represent vast improvements on the ratings Corbyn received when he was first elected, but they do highlight the reality check needed in some circles.

When it looked like we were heading back to the polls for a second independence referendum, Corbyn’s inconsistent messaging on the issue was seen as a drag on the party’s support. As the prospect of another vote continue to diminish, there may be a window of opportunity for the party to garner support through a radical domestic agenda.

And it is clear from the polls that the party’s uptick in support went hand in hand with greater perceived policy competence on the key devolved issues. According to Ipsos MORI, a third of Scots now see Labour as having the best policies for the NHS (up from 18% in 2015 and level pegging with the SNP), while 25% see the party as having the best education policies (up from 18% in 2015).

The party has recovered in Scotland and Corbyn must take some credit for that. However, a more detailed look at election results and polling data make that revival appear tenuous so far. Add in the challenges of managing the UK-Scottish party relationship, Brexit policy and the ongoing constitutional debate and it is clear that another reversal in fortune could be as likely as continued revival.

A summary of this article first appeared in The Times on August 26th 2017