Scottish Labour are in a wee spot of bother, it is safe to say without controversy. Having been reduced from being the unquestionable top political force in Scotland to facing the prospect of coming third in the fast approaching MSP elections in a still astonishingly brief period of time remains, well, pretty astonishing. Kezia Dugdale is doing everything she can to turn the ship around, and few think anyone else could be doing a markedly better job as Scottish Labour leader (and no, Anas Sarwar would most definitely not be a step up). But the messaging mission she faces is an impossible one. She and her party are trapped between not annoying pro-independence lefties while at the same time trying to attract the sizeable pro-Union vote (lest we forget that 55% of Scottish voters chose to remain in the United Kingdom in 2014). On the question that dominates Scottish politics – one in which both the SNP and the Tories have unequivocal positions – Labour are nowhere.
I take you back a year to the Liberal Democrats 2015 general election campaign. Like Scottish Labour now, the Lib Dems were trying to pitch themselves in the middle of all political thought. They were trapped between praising the government of which they had been a major part alongside the Tories while at the same time telling the country that the Tories were awful. In the midst of an emotionally charged ideological argument, the Lib Dems decided to join neither side; the party would be the “sane centrist voice” to help temper the “extreme” urges of the other two parties. Needless to say, this didn’t work out.
Will 2016 be any better for Scottish Labour than 2015 was for the Lib Dems? Kezia reminds me more every day of Tim Farron – a likeable leader, trying their best in an impossible situation having come along to steer the ship long after the hull has been compromised and the water is flooding the lower decks. Both of them are hoping that the worst has happened already and that the only way from here is up. Both worried that it may get darker before the next dawn. Neither of them can do much other than keep pedalling and hope it all comes good in the end.
The real common factor between Scottish Labour now and the Lib Dems then though, is that both witnessed an unprecedented collapse in their electoral support over a very small time scale. Just as no one really thought that the SNP were going to take over 50 seats in May 2015, or that the Lib Dems would actually be reduced to a parliamentary party in single figures in that same election, no one really thinks that Labour can end up with less seats than the Tories in the Scottish parliament in a week’s time. We live in a time of great political upheaval – trying to understand what the new normal is becomes trickier all the time. I have no advice for Kezia at present other than to keep pedalling. What else can she do?