Polling is shortly to close in the battle to become the next Scottish Labour leader, the result of which will be announced on December 13. Given the party’s position in the polls, whoever takes on this role has a mountain to climb – be it Jim Murphy (odds 1-4), Neil Findlay (3-1) or Sarah Boyack (25-1). According to the latest poll, conducted by Survation, only 24% of people in Scotland intend to vote for Labour in the UK general election next May – a statistic that could yet impede Ed Miliband’s route to Downing Street.
As many as 46% intend to vote for the Scottish National Party (SNP), while 17% currently back the Conservatives and 6% the Liberal Democrats. Contrast this with the 2010 UK general election, where 42% voted Labour while just 19% backed the SNP. Even in the last Scottish parliament election in 2011, when the SNP won an overall majority, Labour still secured 32% of the constituency vote.
How might Labour recover? Does it need to elect a popular individual? Or do its prospects depend on the policies the new leader brings to the table? The same Survation poll suggested that policies not personalities will be key. Nearly half of voters (49%) said that having “better policies for Scotland” would make them more likely to vote Labour. Only 37% said that having a better Scottish leader would do so.
This fits the evidence of current UK-wide polls. The latest YouGov poll of UK-wide voting intentions puts Labour on 33%, one point ahead of the Conservatives, even though Miliband’s ratings are much lower than those for David Cameron. Only 17% say that Miliband is doing well as leader of the Labour party, compared with 40% who think Cameron is doing well as prime minister.
It might also explain the relative closeness of the Scottish race. Although Murphy is still the favourite, Findlay is giving him a good run for his money. Of the three voting blocs, the unions are expected to swing behind Findlay and the politicians behind Murphy. That leaves the party membership holding the balance of power, and Findlay’s people insisting he has the edge.
The Trident tango
So if policies are the more important factor in persuading people to vote for a party, then the policies put forward by the new Scottish Labour party leader could be vital to their efforts to restore the Labour vote. So how are the three potential new leaders of the Scottish Labour party attempting to differentiate themselves on policies?
Two of the key issues that have emerged during the campaigning have been income tax and nuclear weapons. Murphy supported the full devolution of income tax to the Scottish parliament, whereas Findlay and Boyack both expressed reservations. But events have overtaken these declarations with the publication on November 27 of the Smith Commission report into new Scottish powers, which recommended that full control over income-tax rates and bands should be devolved.
On the contentious issue of Trident, which is headquartered at the mouth of the River Clyde in the west of Scotland, Findlay stands out as the anti-nuclear-weapons candidate. His stance goes beyond even the SNP’s promise in the referendum that an independent Scotland would require the UK to remove Trident from Scottish soil.
If elected, he has promised to lobby Miliband to scrap Britain’s nuclear weapons capability entirely, arguing that the savings could be better spent on tackling poverty and youth unemployment and on improving social care and social housing. Both Murphy and the SNP counter that whatever Findlay would like to happen, this is not a decision that Scottish Labour will ultimately make, and that Labour in London will reject this position.
What the voters think
But how popular is an anti-nuclear-weapons stance with the general public in Scotland? Evidence from the Scottish Social Attitudes (SSA) survey suggests that people in Scotland are in fact fairly evenly divided on the issue. On the one hand, the 2013 survey found that more people (46%) were against Britain having nuclear weapons than were in favour (37%).
But asked whether Britain should be required to remove its nuclear weapons from an independent Scotland, slightly fewer (37%) reckoned it should than said it should not (42%). And when the latter question was repeated in 2014, the two proportions were again almost the same, at 42% and 37% respectively.
This division is mirrored by Labour supporters. While 48% oppose the principle of Britain having nuclear weapons, 36% are in favour, almost exactly in line with the figures for Scots as a whole. They are also almost exactly evenly divided between those who think an independent Scotland should require Britain to remove its nuclear weapons and those who do not.
In truth whatever stance he or she takes on the issue, the next Scottish leader will run the risk of contradicting the views of a significant body of the party’s current supporters. Policies may matter to voters, but on this issue at least the new leader may well discover that the best strategy is not to say very much at all.