Unravelling continues for Scottish Labour


James Mitchell


Scottish Labour has issued its list of candidates for the June 8th general election.  This is striking for three reasons:

  • it has done so with remarkable efficiency, given the lack of warning that an election was pending;
  • only one of the defeated MPs from two years ago is standing again;
  • and it has achieved 50/50 gender balance.

In introducing the second reading of the Fixed Term Parliament Act, 2011, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was clear, ‘The Bill has a single, clear purpose: to introduce fixed-term Parliaments to the United Kingdom to remove the right of a Prime Minister to seek the Dissolution of Parliament for pure political gain.’  The Act, combined with Prime Minister May’s repeatedly insistence that she had no intention of calling an early election, meant that opposition parties were caught off guard when an election was called.

There is an inbuilt inverse relationship between existing levels of Parliamentary representation and preparedness.  Constituencies with incumbent MPs seeking re-election would at least not have to seek candidates and are more likely to have a better organisation ready to fight an election.  This meant that Scottish Labour was particularly vulnerable.  Over the last decade, Labour has lost support and associated infrastructure.  The 2015 general election which saw it lose all but one of its 41 MPs was followed a year later with a loss of 13 of its previous 38 Members of the Scottish Parliament.  And Scottish Labour has been bracing itself for significant losses in Scottish local government elections.

Finding candidates in a short space of time would have been difficult enough but the party is still struggling to come to terms with the psychological blows of losing not only its place as Scotland’s largest – indeed dominant – party until a decade ago to becoming Scotland’s third party – behind the Tories – at last year’s Holyrood elections.

Few of those who have stepped forward can have any illusions about the task ahead.  Some younger party members may see this as a kind of right of passage – the ‘ritual blooding of fighting so-called unwinnable seats’ referred to in Tory circles.  There are prominent English Tory MPs with huge majorities who experienced this blooding at the hands of the Scottish electorate, including Bernard Jenkin, Chair of the Commons Public Administration and Constitution Committee in the last Parliament, and Jacob Rees Mogg who were bloodied in Scottish seats by Labour MPs with massive majorities similar to those these Tories now enjoy many hundreds of miles of south.  Jenkin stood in Glasgow Central in 1987, to ‘illustrate that people in the South-East haven’t forgotten about Scotland’.  A similar stiff upper lip will be required amongst many Labour candidates going into this election with the hope that they too might in time sit on the Commons’ green benches with similar majorities some time in the future.

Eight of the 41 Scottish Labour MPs returned in 2010 retired two years ago.  And no doubt had the remainder been returned some of these would have chosen to stand down at this election.  But only one of the group of former Labour MPs wants to be a ‘retread’.  Ian Davidson, MP for Glasgow Govan 1992-2015, is standing in Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk, Scotland’s most marginal seat.  But this is a straight fight between the incumbent SNP and the renaissant Tories where Labour was in fourth place and lost its deposit tow years ago.  Neither Douglas Alexander nor Jim Murphy (both aged 49), former Labour Cabinet Ministers, have come forward.

Scottish Labour has highlighted the 50:50 gender split in candidates.  Scottish Labour’s record on gender balance has been second to none in modern times.  As was demonstrated at the foundation of the Scottish Parliament, 50:50 was easier to achieve when starting with a clean slate.  The process of achieving 50:50 is very slow process when waiting for incumbent male MPs to retire and even then there may be a battle to ensure a woman is nominated.

However, the rush to get candidates in place appears to have overlooked at least one crucial matter.  Being a candidate does not guarantee becoming an MP.  Women and ethnic minorities not only face a glass ceiling but also a glass cliff.  They may be selected to contest unwinnable seats.  Scottish Labour is reportedly targeting only three Scottish seats: Edinburgh South which was the only seat Labour held in 2015; East Renfrewshire; and East Lothian.  The Labour candidates in each are men.  The unravelling continues for Scottish Labour.


James Mitchell

Academy of Government

University of Edinburgh





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