Sometimes you just need to accept that some political problems do not have a solution. One such is the Labour party’s increasingly fraught relationship with Scotland. One opinion poll published earlier this summer suggested the erstwhile people’s party now commands the support of just 14 per cent of Scottish voters. The optimistic view of this finding is that the party has finally hit rock bottom and, hence, the only way forward is also the way up. The gloomier view is that 14 per cent is pretty much as good as it will get for Labour. They are where they are because that is where they deserve to be.
Uniquely, the Labour party needs the support of Scots who voted for independence in 2014 and those who voted against it. It must be a Unionist party while still winning the support of Scots open to independence. It is not easy to craft a message that appeals to both these groups and nigh-on impossible to do so if the national question remains the single most important dividing line in Scottish politics. In such circumstances, ‘Let’s talk about something, anything, else’ is both a sensible line and a hopeless one.
But there it is and there you have it. Every move Labour makes to win support from the SNP risks losing voters to the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats; every move the party makes to shore up its Unionist credentials risks alienating left-wing voters who dislike the Tories more than they fear the SNP or the idea of an independent Scotland.
So, what is to be done? The first, perhaps counter-intuitive, answer is to forget about Scotland. The road to recovery begins in England, not north of the border. If Labour cannot win in England, it will not win in Scotland either. Conversely, a Labour party that is serious about winning in England and that shows signs it can actually do so and dearly wishes to form a government is the Labour party best-placed to revive, if only a little, in Scotland. People prefer to back winners then certain losers.
Even so, Labour’s relationship with Scotland – and the national question – remains fraught. Writing in the Times today, Rachel Sylvester makes a case for Labour forming some kind of arrangement with the SNP. This, at any rate, is the approach favoured by some members of the shadow cabinet. If – sorry, when – the SNP win next year’s Holyrood election, Labour should respond by agreeing to SNP demands for a second independence referendum. According to one source quoted by Sylvester, 'The clever thing is for us to say ‘yes we will have a referendum’ and open discussions with the SNP on what independence would look like'.
If this is the clever chat in Labour circles, one hates to think what the stupid folk are saying. It may be a variant on the notion floated by James Forsyth in The Spectator recently arguing that negotiations on independence should precede any vote, so that Scots may make a more informed choice but it still seems, to me at any rate, rather like seeking to put out a fire with the aid of a can of kerosene.
In any case, the implied message – 'Vote Labour to facilitate the end of the United Kingdom' – is still not, I think, a winning or attractive one. And that still applies, just about, in England too and this is so even if, at present, the Conservative and Unionist party appears hellbent upon abandoning its own Unionist credentials. That is what all talk of doing a deal or reaching some kind of accommodation with the SNP requires, however, and there is no easy or obvious way of avoiding that reality.
Labour is, for now, a Unionist party even if many Labour supporters do not consider themselves Unionists in that fashion. It is a Unionist party because, however unfashionable this may be amongst certain parts of the Scottish left, it believes – rightly or wrongly – that the United Kingdom’s existence is in the best interests of all its peoples; that we are better, and stronger, together and that lines of solidarity recognise no internal borders.
Sometimes politics must be about something more than mere transactional relationships. Labour’s commitment to the United Kingdom may have to be one such thing. At some point, some people on the left are going to have to appreciate that the SNP has no interest in reaching any kind of compromise on the national question and that, consequently, no genuine deal on this subject is possible. Labour can pay and pay again and again and the SNP will never disappear.
Sylvester quotes another Labour insider who argues that 'without an electoral agreement with the Lib Dems and the SNP I don’t think there can be a Labour government after the next election'. I suspect this is not the case but those arguing for such arrangements should at least consider their price. What kind of agreement could be reached with the SNP whose raison d’être – some people still seem oddly keen to overlook this – is the dismemberment of the country Sir Keir Starmer aspires to lead?
The answer is that there is no such satisfactory arrangement and it is foolish to imagine there could be unless, that is, the Labour party decides it is indifferent to the United Kingdom’s survival. If that is the case, it would be better to say so even if – awkwardly – this might also contradict one of the messages of this week’s virtual Labour conference: that the party actually likes and believes in the country it wishes to govern.