This Is How Scottish Labour's Catastrophic Election Night Played Out
Labour insiders insist leader Kezia Dugdale will keep her job despite the fact her party now trails behind the Conservatives in Scotland.
The Scottish Labour party has suffered its darkest night after a disastrous set of Holyrood election results saw it relegated to the third-biggest party in Scotland, behind the SNP and the Conservatives.
Although, in the run-up to polling night, there had been nagging doubts caused by a few opinion polls placing Kezia Dugdale's party behind Ruth Davidson's Tories, no one inside Scottish Labour anticipated the nightmare scale of this defeat.
Just last week, interviewed by BuzzFeed News, Dugdale insisted she could win the election outright and, when asked about the opinion polls showing Davidson creeping ahead, she said: "There's a [polling company] TNS poll ... that puts us four points ahead of the Tories – we're clearly second, our vote share is going up."
Even as poor results began trickling in after 1am on Friday and there were suggestions Labour had lost every one of its Glasgow constituencies, a senior party source insisted: "It's still too early to tell. There's a few places with encouraging signs. How it all pans out on the list is anyone's guess."
By around 2:30am, however, the mood in the Labour camp had darkened. The party had suffered significant defeats, most notably in the Eastwood constituency, where Ken Macintosh had been MSP since 1999. He came third, behind the Conservatives and the SNP. There was no doubt – the Labour vote was collapsing, and the Tory vote was soaring.
At this point party staff admitted it would take something extraordinary to save them from third place. However, when Dugdale arrived at the count with her partner at 3:30am, she refused to concede that Labour had come third, saying there were "still lots of results to come".
As further damning results kept rolling in, and miserable activists paced the counting hall, Dugdale had to take to the stage to find out she had been defeated by the SNP in the Edinburgh Eastern constituency. She made no further comment to the media.
However, party activists were fully aware of what was happening. "This is a body blow, we didn't see the Tories coming in this way," said one. "It's impressive to see the SNP being overturned by the other parties but this is just not the picture we expected."
A Labour insider questioned Dugdale's strategy of spending the campaign talking about winning the election rather than taking on Davidson directly and laying bare to Scottish voters what it would be like to have the Tories as the main opposition.
Meanwhile, to rub salt in the wound, Davidson was by far the cheeriest person in the room having pulled off the shock victory of the night by coming from fourth place to win the Edinburgh Central constituency.
One Labour activist succinctly identified the problem: "In many ways Kez led the debate during the campaign – look at things like the income tax policy. But there was a whole other debate, about independence, that was going on without us."
It was only at around 5:30am when Dugdale was announced as the winner of a seat via the Lothian regional list – the proportional system that runs alongside the first-past-the-post constituency vote – that she tackled the difficult subject of what had taken place. By this point, it was clear Labour was on course to lose 13 seats.
"This election was always going to be tough for the Scottish Labour party, just a year after a painful general election defeat," she said. "But I am proud that our campaign rose to the challenge of offering an alternative vision of what could be done in our new, more powerful parliament."
She congratulated Nicola Sturgeon on the SNP election victory – but made no mention of Davidson or the Conservatives – and said that she would aim to be a strong opposition leader in her own right over the next five years.
Asked afterwards if she would remain leader, the "heartbroken" Dugdale said: "No matter what, 100%, I will remain leader of this party."
By this point, it was nearing 6am and Labour activists were knackered, soundly defeated, and sick of being in the same room as the jubilant Tories. Heading to the door, one was asked what the way forward for the party is.
"I don't know, I'm going to struggle with that one," they said. "But it would be genuinely crazy to think that the answer to the problems we face is to have another leadership election – Kezia has to stay."
A Labour source said later: "She is absolutely staying on, no question." It remains to be seen if a demoralised and hurting party will agree.