The story of Scottish Labour begins in April 1888 when Keir Hardie stood in the Mid-Lanark by-election. Hardie, who stood on a platform that included a pledge for stronger regulation of health and safety in the mining industry, the introduction of an eight-hour maximum working day, votes and political rights for women and home rule for Scotland, won only 617 votes. However, by standing against the Conservatives and Liberals, Hardie had given birth to a new and radical force in Scottish politics.
Four months after the Mid-Lanark campaign, the Scottish Labour Party was formed, and, one year later, the new party merged with the Independent Labour Party (ILP), which Hardie had a played a key role in creating.
The Scottish Trade Union Congress brought together its affiliated unions, the ILP’s Scottish division and associated socialist societies in 1899 to organise for the promotion of representation for working people through the Scottish Workers’ Parliamentary Committee, later reviving the title of Scottish Labour Party. This initiative preceded the creation of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) in England and Wales in 1900. In 1906, the LRC changed its name to the Labour Party, and three years later, in 1909, the Scottish Labour Party amalgamated with its sister party to create the UK-wide political organisation.
The subsequent rise of Labour was relentless. A mere fifteen years after the merger of the Labour Party and Scottish Labour Party, and 35 years after the Mid-Lanark election in which Hardie got a mere 8 per cent of the vote, Labour formed its first minority government, led by a Scot, in 1924.
The major advance, however, came at the 1922 general election: Labour won 142 seats and replaced the Liberals as the main opposition, and Labour became the largest single party in Scotland for the first time. Another election followed in December 1923, and Labour’s parliamentary ranks swelled to 191, 35 of whom came from Scotland, enabling Labour to form a government. The government’s life was short-lived – lasting only ten months. But this did not prevent substantial progress. John Wheatley, MP for Glasgow Shettleston, steered through the 1924 Housing Act, legislating for the first major programme of municipal house building. A Scottish Home Rule Bill was introduced by George Buchanan, Labour MP for the Gorbals, though the measure was eventually talked out despite government support for the general principle of the Bill.
Twenty years later – after another period of minority government in 1929 – Labour formed its first majority government in July 1945. Prior to this, importantly, Labour politicians played a leading role in Winston Churchill’s cabinet during the Second World War. Labour ministers – including Clement Attlee as Deputy Prime Minister and Ernest Bevin who served as Minister for Labour – were crucial to shoring up the home front, equipping Britain to win not just the war but also the peace. One of the great unsung heroes of the war was the Labour MP for Stirling and Clackmannan West, Tom Johnston, who was Secretary of State for Scotland between 1941 and 1945. He laid the foundations of Scotland's post-war reconstruction by establishing the North of Scotland Hydro Electric Board, the Scottish Council of State and a Council of Industry, as well as laying part of the foundation for Aneurin Bevan’s NHS by accelerating the scale and speed of public investment in hospital construction and staffing
The first majority Labour government changed the face of Scotland and Britain. In six short years, Labour introduced the National Insurance Act in 1946; the National Health Service Act in the same year; the Town and Country Planning Act in 1947; the Children Act in1948, establishing a comprehensive childcare service, reforming services providing care to deprived and orphaned children; the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act in 1949; extended the minimum school-leaving age from 14 to 15; and oversaw British withdrawal from India.
Labour was again elected in 1964. Harold Wilson’s progressive governments, despite severe economic difficulties, were able to fundamentally change the country. The Labour government liberalised the laws on censorship, abortion, divorce, and homosexuality, outlawed capital punishment and created the Open University. In Scotland, Willie Ross, the Secretary of State, created both the Highlands and Islands Development Board and the Scottish Development Agency, pioneering regional economic development. In 1969, Labour again led the way on devolution, when the government established the Kilbrandon Commission, which recommended the creation of devolved assemblies for Scotland and Wales. Following this, Labour officially committed itself to an elected assembly, and subsequently fought and won the October 1974 general election on this programme.
In 1976, the Callaghan Government introduced the first Devolution Bill to the House of Commons, a piece of legislation piloted through Parliament by the young minister (and future Labour leader) John Smith. However, the creation of a Scottish Assembly was unable to command the requisite number of votes in the subsequent referendum in March 1979. Within weeks of the referendum disappointment Labour lost the general election.
During the 1980s, when the Labour Party did poorly at national level, Scottish Labour remained the largest party in Scotland. This provided a large part of the base from which Neil Kinnock was able to establish a comfortable lead over the SDP/Liberal Alliance at the 1987 General Election, and took the party within a hair’s breadth of winning in 1992.
Throughout the1990s, Scottish Labour played a leading role in the Constitutional Convention, and worked with others in local government, the churches and wider Scottish civic society to produce new proposals for a new Scottish Parliament. John Smith’s sudden death in 1994, and the determination to complete his “unfinished business”, spurred the Scottish Labour Party to a record 56 seats in Tony Blair's 1997 landslide election victory.
Within three months of the 1997 election, Donald Dewar produced a White Paper on devolution. When Dewar introduced the Scotland Bill, he read the first clause, “There shall be a Scottish Parliament”, paused, looked up at his audience and said, “I like that.” He expertly piloted the legislation through the House of Commons, and, in September 1997, a mandate for a Scottish Parliament in a referendum was won: 74.3 per cent of those voting supported a Scottish Parliament, and 63.5 per cent were in favour of giving it tax-raising powers. In the first election to the Scottish Parliament, in May 1999, Scottish Labour won 56 of the 129 seats, and Dewar became Scotland’s first First Minister.
During the Scottish Parliament’s first session, when financial resources were scarce, radicalism took many forms. In total, 62 Bills were passed and became Acts of the Scottish Parliament. Amongst the most important measures to advance greater social justice in Scotland were the abolition of feudal tenure, land reform, and repeal of clause 28.
After Donald’s tragic death, Henry McLeish was elected First Minister. He was succeeded in 2001 by Jack McConnell and Labour was once more returned as the largest party in the Parliament after the 2003 election. McConnell pioneered innovative changes, including ban on smoking in public places and controls on anti-social behaviour.
In May 2011, Ed Miliband commissioned Jim Murphy and Sarah Boyack to undertake a root-and-branch review of Scottish Labour in order “to achieve an effective, modern Scottish Labour Party, better able to earn the trust of, and deliver for, the people of Scotland.” Four months later, Murphy and Boyack unveiled the largest package of reforms to the Scottish Labour Party. The proposals, which included the creation, for the first time, of an elected Leader of the Scottish Labour Party, were approved by a special conference in Scotland on 29 October.
In December 2011, Johann Lamont won the contest to become the first overall Leader of Scottish Labour. On Saturday 15th August 2015, Kezia Dugdale was elected Leader of the Scottish Labour Party, following Jim Murphy and Johann Lamont before her.
The current Leader of the Scottish Labour Party is Richard Leonard, who was elected by members and supporters on Saturday 18th November 2017.