GE24 Party Profile: Scottish Labour


It’s not been the easiest time for Scottish Labour in recent years. Way back in 1959, the party won the Scottish element of the UK General Election, kicking off a winning streak that would continue unbroken for nearly five decades. That’s a remarkable level of success for any party in the democratic world, and by the time of Tony Blair’s historic 1997 landslide that wiped the Conservatives off the map up here and led to the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, the party seemed unbeatable.

A decade on from that landslide, they would narrowly lose their first election. Two decades on, they would find themselves relegated to third party. Defeat after crushing defeat left the party a demoralised shell of its former self. There was a period where it almost seemed like Scottish Labour might never recover, and where – unwilling to admit it as they may be – a certain sense of exhausted bitterness had settled over some of a generation of councillors and activists robbed of what they saw as a natural progression to a safe seat, or at least to being on the winning team, that generations before them had been able to rely on.

Over the past couple of years, all of that has evaporated. As the Conservatives began to collapse at UK level, Labour were able to reclaim second place in the 2022 local elections – a very modest recovery in absolute terms, but a massive one psychologically. When the SNP joint the ranks of chaotic, collapsing governments, Labour’s recovery accelerated, returning them to the leading party in the polls for the first time since the 2014 Independence Referendum. As it stands, Labour look to be on the cusp of both another record-breaking landslide at UK level, and a stunning revival in Scotland.


Note: For simplicity, this section only looks at elections starting from 2005, which was when the previous boundaries came into effect. Notably, this included a significant reduction in the number of Scottish seats from 72 to 59, correcting a historic over-representation that was no longer felt necessary following the establishment of the Scottish Parliament.

Vote Shares

At the beginning of this period, Labour were picking up the backing of a solid 4 in 10 voters in Scotland. The non-Labour vote was by contrast heavily fractured, placing a few points either side of 20% ahead of their closest competitors in both 2005 and 2010.

That vote fell sharply after the Independence referendum, not least because heartlands around Glasgow and Lanarkshire had voted for Independence against the party’s recommendation. They were nonetheless able to count on the support of nearly a quarter of voters, which First Past the Post would make a mockery of in terms of the seats they got. 2017 brought with it only a modest increase in votes, as the ongoing Scottish Conservative revival asserted itself for the first time at Westminster.

In all the Brexit-centric chaos of the 2019 snap election, Labour’s voice in Scotland was perhaps naturally drowned out, and they fell to their lowest point for a UK General Election in democratic history. The only time they won fewer Westminster votes than in 2019 was before the First World War, a point at which the franchise still didn’t have any universal elements to it at all.

At time of writing, the BBS poll average for Labour (last updated on the 10th of June) was 36.3%, representing a near-doubling of their vote compared to 2019.

Seat Shares (Total)
Seat Shares (Categorised)

The two identical elections of 2005 and 2010, when Labour were the absolutely dominant force in Scottish politics, saw the party win over two-thirds of the seats available. As discussed in some length in my analysis of why Labour might do so well in this election, this was rooted almost entirely in their impressive command over the voters across Central Belt/Urban Scotland. Although those core seats make up a bit under 6 in 10 of Scotland’s constituencies, they accounted for 8 in 10 of Scottish Labour MPs. They weren’t absent elsewhere however, with for example long-established presence in southern Ayrshire in the South bloc plus winning Stirling in the Mid/North East category; both effectively awkward transition areas between Central Belt and Rural Scotland.

Their absolutely shattering defeat in 2015 reduced them to just Edinburgh South, as large sections of the Urban Central Belt where they had never really been challenged voted for Independence in 2014, and then flooded towards the SNP. That crushing loss was repeated in 2019, punctuated by the brief interlude of narrowly picking up 6 Central Belt/Urban seats in 2017.

Possible Outcomes

Note: Obviously, your personal perception of a good or bad result will depend on how much you like a given party. For the purposes of this piece, good and bad relate to how an impartial observer might view the result, taking into account other elections and the general situation facing that party. They are not a commentary on whether such results would be good or bad for the country.

Good Result

If the SNP can’t expect anything other than a bad result this election, there’s no Labour performance that won’t be good. Acknowledging the hill they have to climb relative to other recent elections however, we could say that the least good result would be simply to win more seats than the SNP. A really good result would be to win a majority of Scottish MPs, which would be at least 29. A phenomenally good result would be to push past 35, bringing them close to matching their pre-collapse heights.

They could add a little extra success to each of these by winning any of the seats in the Mid/North East or South categories, giving them a little bit of additional reach outwith the two Urban categories. “Additional” because I’m working on the assumption that the Highlands/Islands seat of Na h-Eileanan an Iar is a bolted-on gain for them by this point.

Bad Result

After the decade that Labour have had in Scotland, based on current polling there isn’t really any result that they could have here that would be truly bad. Rather than “bad”, if they did only just squeak a seat lead over the SNP, that might be somewhat disappointing compared to where they are polling now. Even more deeply disappointing, though unlikely, would be if they failed to beat the SNP.

Balancing out the fact that winning some Mid/North East or South seats would add to their success, if they fail to prevent the SNP from holding more than a handful of their Central Belt/Urban seats, that might take a bit of the polish off an otherwise strong result. As touched upon in the SNP’s profile piece, that effectively gives the SNP the option of spinning a “well, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been” story.

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