As I write this, I’m looking out of my window at torrential rain. The same rain is falling fifty miles away in Glasgow, on tens of thousands of undeterred flag-waving independence supporters, marching in support of another referendum in 2020. Five years after 55 percent of Scottish voters backed staying in the Union, the issue isn’t going away. The independence faultline remains the defining divide in Scottish politics, after a decade which has not been kind to the Labour Party.
Before the ‘red wall’ crumbled in December, the Scottish heartlands fell. A country which once sent forty Labour MPs to Westminster now sends only the seemingly indestructible Ian Murray. This wipeout has significant implications for Labour’s chances of forming any majority government in the future. Rightly, the candidates in the current leadership contest are being asked for their views on how Scotland might be regained.
In one respect, it’s actually quite simple. Labour needs to look like it’s ready to win. The spectre of eternal Tory government is the strongest card the SNP possesses. Much separatist sentiment in Scotland – and almost all the softer support from left-of-centre voters that we must hope to one day peel away – grows from a straightforward belief that independence is the path towards sparing the Scottish people from Conservative governments they overwhelmingly don’t vote for. The more entrenched Tory hegemony looks, the stronger this argument becomes. It has gained considerable traction in the years since the 2014 referendum.
Aside from a brief period immediately before and for a couple of months after the general election of 2017 – the period, not coincidentally, in which Scottish Labour saw its support reach its highest levels since 2015 – Scots overwhelmingly didn’t believe that Jeremy Corbyn could become prime minister. They were ultimately proved right when Labour was shattered in December. Much though we in Scottish Labour would love to believe that we can solve our own problems, the one thing most likely to revitalise Labour’s cause in Scotland would be a revitalised UK party seen as a credible government-in-waiting. We can only hope that the ongoing leadership contest sets the party on a clear trajectory towards regaining power.
In the meantime, however, the contenders still need to demonstrate their commitment to restoring Labour’s fortunes in Scotland, and their understanding of the issues the party faces north of the border. This week, both Clive Lewis and Jess Phillips made contributions which though very different, were similarly unhelpful. Lewis used an article in the National to state that Labour shouldn’t stand in the way of a mandate for another referendum. He didn’t make any effort to define what such a mandate might look like, and he also failed to lay out anything more than the most cursory and formulaic critique of the SNP (that might have been the sub-editors, of course, but if you will write for the National…). Phillips, meanwhile, lurched to the opposite extreme, seeming to rule out supporting any second referendum under her watch. Both interventions were rapidly seized upon and widely shared by independence supporters (supportively and contemptuously respectively). We need to stop handing such gifts to Labour’s opponents.
These missteps are all the more frustrating, because there is a straightforward approach that leadership candidates interested in making a contribution to revitalising Labour’s cause in Scotland must follow. It should be marked by three key elements:
First of all, Labour at a UK level should reaffirm a straightforward commitment to the union. The party must be unambiguous about its belief that Scotland is better off within the UK – and also that the UK is stronger for Scotland’s presence. The second part of this is important to ensuring that the case for the union is one of solidarity, not charity: Scotland and Scottish Labour have a contribution to make to the better future that we all hope can still be shaped. At times it can feel as if a demoralised UK party has given up on Scottish Labour and that it believes that the union itself is living on borrowed time. Both party and union face huge challenges in the years and decades to come, but prematurely writing them off risks creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Labour needs to look like it cares about Scotland as more than just a potential source of votes.
Secondly, Scotland’s constitutional future can ultimately only be a matter for the Scottish people. Every candidate has a responsibility to show that they understand this. Labour is not in the business of standing in the way of self-determination, and the party cannot follow the Tories down the path of intransigence. The SNP have comfortably topped every poll in Scotland since the referendum and that cannot be ignored. Nothing seems more likely to drive up support for independence than English politicians insisting that it simply isn’t a possibility. To a certain extent, this can work for the Tories: their pool of potential voters is smaller and is highly motivated by unionism. For Labour, it’s fatal. There is no path back towards electoral relevance which does not run through winning back independence supporters.
There is a caveat to this, however, and it is that ‘the Scottish people’ and ‘the SNP’ are not actually the same thing, whatever Ian Blackford might say when someone isn’t nice to him. Yes, the SNP won a large majority of Scotland’s seats and a hefty plurality of the popular vote in December. But the three main UK-wide parties put together outpaced it by over 200,000 votes (the pro-independence Greens received just under 30,000 votes, which doesn’t change the arithmetic hugely). Put simply, there is no convincing evidence to suggest that the popularity of independence has shifted significantly in the last five years.
Finally, much as Scotland’s future can only be a matter for the people of Scotland, so too must Labour’s policy on Scotland be driven by Scottish Labour. More important than the freedom to diverge from UK policy is the ability to shape it, at least when it comes to this crucial area. Resolving the question of what constitutes a mandate for an independence referendum is a task for the Scottish party, which must never again be undermined by policymaking on the fly from Westminster figures. The line set in Edinburgh must be followed in London: only this will demonstrate that, rather than being a mere branch office, Scottish Labour is a valued contributor to the party.
Fundamentally, there is no point in pretending that there are any easy answers for Labour in Scotland. But, to the extent to which specific solutions are required – and it is important to reiterate that, in all probability, the single most significant driver of a Scottish recovery will be a recovery across the UK – they must be made in Scotland. The role of the UK party must principally be to support Scottish Labour as it tries to untangle the constitutional knot.