Is Labour finished in Scotland? There has been an assumption by many, particularly those in England, that the SNP behemoth will start to roll back at some stage; being in government in Holyrood will inevitably cause political gravity to take hold. Yet the SNP’s political humbling seems more remote than ever before, with a large gain in Westminster seats in December combining with huge polling leads for both themselves in Holyrood elections and for their side of the independence question itself. I believe Labour needs to strategically give up on Scotland – at least for now – if it wants to govern after the next general election and indeed, give themselves any prayer of winning big again in Scotland anytime in the future.
One of the things that led to Labour doing so poorly in the 2015 general election was the perceived threat of a Labour-SNP government, exploited perfectly by the Tories with their posters depicting Ed Miliband in the breast pocket of Alex Salmond. Keir Starmer would be foolish to believe that the same messaging would not have a similar effect come the next general election – or that the Tories won’t try and go down the same road again. Labour need to figure out how to neutralise this line as much as possible.
I can suggest a way to do this – it will make for horrible reading for any diehard Unionists, unfortunately. Starmer has not ruled out allowing a second independence referendum, should one not have taken place by the time he becomes prime minister. Labour should go further and commit to allowing Indyref2 to happen for certain. Starmer should even go beyond that and say his party will not campaign on either side. This is not just to satisfy the SNP and pro-independence voters in Scotland; it is to relax English voters as well. Labour needs to assure the latter that questions around independence will not dominate the whole of the first Lab-SNP parliament; that Indyref2 would be a way to settle things for all time and move on. By promising to stay out of it and abide by the result, Labour can start to offer this assurance.
English voters will need more than that in order to feel relatively relaxed about a Lab-SNP government, however. Labour should commit to devolving as much as is practically possible to the Scottish parliament while also saying that Scottish MPs will not be given a vote on any English-only matters – even if that leads to the government losing votes in the House of Commons. In a sense, what I am urging here is for Labour to give up not only on winning in Scotland but on the Union itself, at least temporarily.
Labour have absolutely no hope of regaining even a shadow of their former dominance in Scotland until it is either a fully sovereign country or independence has been seen to be definitely rejected. Like it or not, Brexit helped fuel the desire for another independence referendum and this will not be satisfied now until there is Indyref2. I don’t see a way around this problem. Both Labour and the Tories seem in denial about it at present, but that isn’t going to make it go away.
I fully realise nothing would put the Union into as much peril as Labour visibly giving up on Scotland. Yet I think that’s where we are now and Labour needs to accept reality. All Labour can do is be as pro-active as possible given the conditions. Continuing to pretend that there is going to be a sea change in Scottish politics before another independence referendum plays out is increasingly naïve.
There is another, more positive way for Labour to look at all this. By taking the steps required to put themselves in a position to govern after the next general election, Labour can hope that having a Labour government in Westminster as opposed to a Conservative one, particularly if it is a Labour government effectively promising a return to the single market, will help swing another No vote. Nicola Sturgeon would unquestionably feel less confident of winning Indyref2 were Starmer prime minister instead of Boris Johnson. She surely sees the current Tory government as one of her greatest assets in terms of winning independence; it is one of the reasons she is so keen to hold the vote as soon as possible. Just having a Labour prime minister would change the dynamics around Scottish independence, so Starmer should see being the largest party after the next general election as the best thing he can do for the Union, even if the rhetoric he employs to get there is harmful to the future of it.
If you love something, set it free. That’s what Labour needs to do with Scotland.