Alex Massie

Labour’s Scottish problem isn’t going away

Labour’s Scottish problem isn’t going away
Keir Starmer and Anas Sarwar in Edinburgh (photo: Getty)
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Certain questions are eternal and many of them are correspondingly dreary too. ‘How should Labour deal with the SNP?’ and ‘What can Labour offer the nationalists?’ are two of them. Since Labour requires a swing of heroic – or 1997 – proportions to win even a bare majority at the next election, you can understand why these questions will not disappear. Equally, if Labour cannot win a majority, it must dance with the parliament likely to be returned, not the parliament of its dreams.

There is a problem here. What appears to make abundant sense viewed from London makes little sense viewed from Scotland. And vice versa. Any arrangement with the nationalists must surely come at the cost of conceding the SNP’s demand for a second independence referendum. People in London, many of them wise and knowledgeable, appear to think this a minor detail or, rather, one which accommodates itself to the most probable parliamentary arithmetic. Labour will need the SNP’s support, even if only on confidence and budget votes, so if Labour wishes to govern it will have to meet the SNP halfway.

As I say, there is a logic to this. But it is not necessarily persuasive. In the first place, there is no meeting the SNP halfway. There is only conceding to the nationalists’ demands. Secondly, no party seriously concerned with the United Kingdom’s future integrity – no party which values this, thinking it the best future for the whole of the realm – can seriously expect to be elected on a promise to concede Britain’s destruction. Thirdly, conceding the argument for a referendum implicitly accepts Labour cannot recover in Scotland.

Perhaps it won’t or can’t but offering voters the chance to ‘Vote SNP, get Labour’ is one certain way of ensuring Labour will endure a horrific result in Scotland. It offers no incentive to voters who have left Labour for the SNP and every incentive for the party’s remaining supporters – who overwhelmingly value the Union and think it an issue of considerable importance – to switch to the Conservatives (or, in a handful of seats, the Liberal Democrats). It is also, I suspect, liable to prove a disastrous message in England.

The road to recovery in Scotland begins in England. If Labour looks like a party of government south of the border it may be taken more seriously in Scotland. The 2017 election offers some support for this view. Labour did not gain six seats in Scotland because voters here were necessarily enthused by Jeremy Corbyn’s politics but, rather, because Labour momentum in England spilled over into Scotland.

The great Danny Finkelstein’s column in this morning’s edition of the Times is unusually unconvincing on this question. ‘There is a perfectly good argument for a further Scottish vote’ he suggests and while this is true there is also a perfectly good argument for not having one. That rests upon the fact that, at the moment, there is little desire for another plebiscite. Half the country is adamantly opposed to the idea. That may, of course, change and it is also, plainly, true that ‘Now is not the time’ is an argument subject to diminishing returns as, well, time passes. Nevertheless, for as long as there is no consensus in Scotland that a referendum is reasonable it is very difficult to see how or why one should be imposed upon the country by politicians in London.

Finkelstein suggests ‘Labour will need a position’ and that ‘One possibility is to say it will not negotiate with the SNP in any circumstances.’ The problem is, as he puts it, that ‘This promises a government that can’t govern’. Hence the other option: offer a referendum.

If governing is the prize and any price may be paid to achieve it this does indeed make sense. There is a third option, however. If we assume a hung parliament in which the Conservatives are the largest party but Labour could just about plausibly lead an alternative coalition, Labour could make the nationalists a Michael Corleone offer. If could offer the SNP this: nothing.

In those circumstances, the SNP would have to choose between supporting a Labour government or putting the Conservatives back into power. One or other of these parties must lead a government and it would fall to the SNP to choose which it should be. A suspicion has always lingered that the SNP really, secretly, prefer Tory governments in London to Labour ones. This would at least test that proposition, with all the consequences which might follow. ‘Save Scotland from the Tories’ is an argument for independence incompatible with putting the Conservatives in to bat at Westminster.

Of course there would be risks to Labour too. The party might have to swallow the increased risk it could not form even an informal coalition. Nevertheless, the Corleone option at least offers clarity, albeit of a sort which requires facing down the idiots – many of them Corbynistas – in the English party who are more relaxed about dismantling the United Kingdom than Labour’s remaining voters in Scotland are.

Betraying the Scottish party might be the price of power in London but – and here is where Labour finds itself trapped in a cleft stick – a willingness to sell Scotland also makes it harder for Labour to win in England and thereby less, not more, likely the party will be in a position to cobble together a coalition anyway.

Certain ideas ought to be uncontroversial. Among these is surely the proposition that the government of the United Kingdom ought not to be elected on a promise to facilitate the United Kingdom’s potential destruction. If there had not recently been a referendum on that question and if the people of Scotland clearly demanded a second referendum matters might be different. But the question has been asked and there is no overwhelming or irresistible demand to ask it again.

None of which is cheerful news for Unionism which has many problems of its own. Some of these problems can only be alleviated, even if only temporarily, by a Labour government. Unionism needs Labour but if Labour decides it no longer believes in Unionism certain obvious consequences flow from that. Whether Starmer – or anyone else – likes it or not, this is an existential question of the kind from which there is no hiding.