In the early 1990s, when I worked for Scottish Labour (or “the Labour Party in Scotland”, as it was then known), we put a poll in the field, as the Americans might say.
We wanted to measure voting intentions, but we also wanted the answer to a secondary question: Which party do you think stands up best for Scotland?
The answers were startling.
On voting intention, we were miles ahead of our nearest rivals, the SNP. But on that second question, the nationalists beat us out of the park. Which is why, so long as the question Scottish voters asked themselves as they went to vote in a general election was “Which party will best protect Scotland from the Tories?”, Labour would do well.
However, as soon as the question became “Which party stands up best for Scotland?” – which, in the aftermath of last year’s independence referendum, it did – Labour didn’t stand a chance.
Four months ago, the SNP won 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats because it had become the natural repository for Scots still enamoured of the two-and-a-half-years long debate about Scotland’s constitutional future.
Received wisdom – certainly among the media – is that the SNP outflanked Labour to the left on policy. Which is almost true, but not quite. In fact, aside from its opposition to Trident and spending plans that were marginally more generous than those offered by Labour, the SNP continues to sit comfortably in the moderate centre of the Scottish political spectrum.
Enter stage (hard) left: Jeremy Corbyn.
The new Labour leader and his deputy, Tom Watson, have pledged to spend at least one day each month campaigning north of the border between now and the Holyrood elections next May. They understand that a Labour revival in Scotland is crucial to any hopes of a future Labour government.
But if the Islington Messiah expects his brand of hard left socialism to revitalise Scottish Labour, I fear he will be disappointed. It’s true that most of the hard left – the Greens, the Socialist Workers’ Party, and remnants of what was once the Scottish Socialist Party – have welcomed Corbyn’s unexpected and dramatic triumph in his party’s leadership election. Many of them may even be contemplating voting Labour as a result (though many won’t; Corbyn has already been called a “Red Tory” on social media because of his opposition to independence).
But, as in the rest of the UK, the hard left represents a tiny sliver of public opinion in Scotland. The SNP have triumphed, not because of their appeal to the hard left, but to the broad moderate centre, where there are millions, not thousands, of votes.
And those voters, the ones who decide every election, will take some persuading that they should abandon what has become, in the SNP, the safe, moderate, competent option in favour of a radical form of socialism belonging to a bygone era.
When Michael Foot surprised the country by becoming Labour leader in November 1980, the first polling showed his party leading the Conservatives by six points. This week, the first poll undertaken after Corbyn’s win showed Labour six points behind the Conservatives. And very few Labour MPs can envisage that situation improving much, if at all.
So beyond May 2016, how can a Corbyn-led Labour Party persuade its former voters to return to the fold if by then it’s clear it has no realistic chance of displacing the Conservatives as the UK government?
If Scottish voters, even those who approve of Mr Corbyn’s politics, don’t believe he can beat David Cameron or his successor as Tory leader in 2020, they will conclude that the answer to both questions, “Who will best protect Scotland from the Tories?” and “Who stands up best for Scotland?” is the same as the answer they gave in May.
This article was originally published by the Daily Telegraph.