Alex Massie

Did Jeremy Corbyn really save the Labour party in Scotland?

Did Jeremy Corbyn really save the Labour party in Scotland?
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If a line is repeated often enough it becomes true. Or true enough, anyway. This, at any rate, is one of the axiomatic rules of modern politics. He who controls the ballyhooed “narrative” owns the truth. Which is why the interpretation of any given event swiftly becomes almost as important as the actual event itself.

So up-pops Matt Zarb-Cousin, formerly Jeremy Corbyn’s spokesman and now one of his more charming outriders on social media, to claim that it was Jezzah what has saved the Labour party in Scotland. As he puts it, “Corbyn’s supporters have long argued that returning Labour to its socialist roots would be necessary if the party was to ever regain support in Scotland.”

Well, up to a point Lord Spart. 

The revolution may be around the corner but it’s hard to argue Scotland is thirsting for a great leap forwards after an election in which Labour was beaten by the Conservatives for the first time since 1959 and finished in third place for the first time since - wait for it - 1910. 

The best that might be said for Corbyn is that without him Labour’s election result in Scotland might have been even worse than it was. That’s a tenable line, though a modest one. Labour won 27 per cent of the vote in Scotland on polling day, an improvement of just 2.8 per cent on the 2015 Ajockalypse Now election in which the party lost 41 of the 42 seats it had hitherto held. The Tory share of the vote, meanwhile, doubled. 

Granted, Labour’s election result performance was half a dozen points better than had seemed plausible at the outset of the campaign. This proved the difference between modest respectability - as measured by the party’s share of the vote - and irrevocable meltdown. A difference not to be sneered at, then. 

But, still, the “Corbyn Surge” in Scotland was worth precisely 166 votes per constituency. Labour won 707,147 Scottish votes in 2015 and 717,007 in 2017. 

And even that demands we apportion all these new Labour voters to Corbyn, not to the leader of the Scottish party Kezia Dugdale. It is not obvious that is a reasonable or fair interpretation of the result. It was Jez not Kez, you understand, and Labour would have done even better if only Kez were more like Jez. 

The difference between 2015 and 2017, of course, was that Labour’s vote was more efficiently distributed. Even so, the average swing towards Labour in the six seats they took from the SNP was just 5.8 per cent and in two - Rutherglen and Kirkcaldy - the victorious Labour candidate in 2017 actually won fewer votes than the defeated Labour candidate did in 2015. 

If Corbyn helped Labour do better than expected before the election, he still didn’t lead any substantial Labour revival in Scotland if we measure these things by share of the vote or the number of votes actually cast. 

The explanation for Scotland’s election result lies elsewhere. First, the Tory revival - putting on more than 320,000 votes - was a real thing. Secondly, and just as if not more importantly, hundreds of thousands of SNP supporters who voted in 2015 did not vote in 2017. 

As Mark Diffley, late of Ipsos-MORI, has observed,  23 per cent of the SNP’s 2015 vote did not cast a vote last month. “Only Ukip lost more voters to ‘apathy’, with 30 per cent of their 2015 cohort sitting on their hands.” As Diffley notes, around one in ten SNP voters in 2015 backed Labour in this election but this is barely greater than the roughly eight per cent of 2015 SNP supporters who switched to the Conservatives last month. 

In other words, Ruth Davidson appealed to SNP supporters almost as much as Jez’n’Kez did, albeit that both parties’ gains from the SNP were within standard - and UK wide - levels of voter “churn”.

Yet for all that, Labour’s successes in Scotland really did matter. The half dozen gains made by Labour had a greater impact on the story of Scotland’s election than the dozen seats picked up by the Conservatives. Many of those Tory gains were baked-in to pre-election expectations; Labour’s were not. We expected the Tories to do well, even if senior Tories didn’t think they would do quite as well as they did. Labour’s victories, by contrast, were genuinely surprising. 

And that made all the difference. Not just to Labour but to the SNP and, hence, to Scotland’s future and that of the United Kingdom as well. Imagine, if you will, a scenario in which the SNP lost 15 seats rather than 21 and in which, as a result their share of the vote remained just above 40 per cent. In those circumstances, the SNP would have emerged from the election with 41 rather than 35 seats and, more importantly, with the ability to claim to speak for Scotland. This would have been a very bad result for the SNP, but still one at the very bottom of assumed pre-election possibilities and thus not nearly so bad as the calamity which the party ended up enduring. 

Nicola Sturgeon’s position would have been weakened, but it would be much stronger than is now the case. The case for IndyRef2 on her preferred timetable would have been holed but it would not have been sunk. Labour’s victories were crucial to scuppering that, acting as a force multiplier when added to the gains made by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Labour helped change the mood and the mood always matters more than people like to think. 

Nevertheless and even if we grant that Corbyn had an impact in Scotland there remains a considerable difference between staving off complete humiliation and, well, just about managing to hold serve. 

There undoubtedly is a left-wing constituency in Scotland that is likely to respond to Corbynism but, as is so often the case, gains made on the left are liable to be offset - at least to some extent - by losses in the centre. Corbyn’s softness on the constitutional question - something which infuriated the Scottish leadership - almost certainly helped the Tories win votes. What may be gained on the roundabouts is easily lost on the swings. 

But the stories of this Scottish election were the SNP’s decline and the Tories’ revival. Corbyn helped the latter but it is not clear he had a great effect on the former. The question for the next election, however, is less what happens with Corbyn but what, if anything, happens to 2015’s “lost” SNP voters. That's where the real action lies.