Can Johann Lamont reverse Labour's decline in Scotland?

The new Scottish Labour leader has to define her vision for Scotland's future, and fast, as she prepares to help her party defend control of Glasgow City Council

This first appeared on the TotalPolitics blog

This week sees Johann Lamont’s first major appearance as new Scottish Labour leader at their spring conference in Dundee. Support for the Labour Party in Scotland continues to decline, leaving the new leader facing a considerable challenge to restore the party’s fortunes. Our latest polling has support for Labour at just 23%, down nine points since last May’s Scottish Parliament election. Can she rejuvenate Labour at a critical time for Scotland?

Like many new leaders, Johann Lamont faces the problem of a lack of recognition. Currently, 40% of Scots are unable to rate her performance as leader. However, although satisfaction among Scots in general remains relatively low (27%), she does appear to have struck a chord with some Labour supporters, 53% of whom are satisfied.

The years between elections tend to offer new leaders time to establish themselves and set out their policies for voters. Johann Lamont does not have that luxury. In two months, she faces the first significant test of her leadership in the shape of local council elections and, in particular, the defence of the party’s control of Glasgow City Council, Scotland’s largest local authority.

However, this also provides her with an opportunity. The upcoming local election campaign is likely to be the most high-profile in decades and could offer Johann Lamont the chance to make her mark as leader. Successfully retaining a majority in Glasgow coupled with a good showing in local elections across the country could help catapult Johann Lamont into the public consciousness as a credible rival to Alex Salmond.

Then comes the independence referendum.

The unionist cause is crying out for a focal point and to Johann Lamont will be expected to play a prominent role in the ‘No’ campaign. In doing so, she must decide whether to adhere to the current party line for the maintenance of the status quo, or forge a separate path to campaign for some form of ‘devolution max’. The latter is currently the option most favoured by the majority of Scottish voters.

Whichever option Johann Lamont chooses, she has to define her vision for Scotland’s future. This will involve re-connecting with voters in Labour’s heartlands, which the SNP has muscled in on, while also reaching out to other key groups. Our polling reveals that those most likely to oppose independence are older people and those living in more affluent areas, arguably, because they feel that they have the most to lose. Although not the typical Labour demographic, these groups may be more likely to respond to a unionist argument that offers a positive and aspirational alternative to independence.

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