In a wide-ranging, and altogether too long speech to Labour Party conference, Keir Starmer had his first opportunity to set out his stall as Labour leader. While a lot has been made of the theatrics of him staring down the hecklers in the conference hall and the scatter-gun approach to themes, the speech has been broadly well-received. Yet the one section where Starmer addressed the Union of the United Kingdom could create trouble.
In fairness, it would be quite easy to overlook this point. In a speech so long even by conference standards that Sam Coates started counting down the pages, the constitutional future of the United Kingdom barely got a name-check. Mark Drakeford, by all accounts the most successful sitting Labour leader, attended conference off the back of Welsh Labour’s resounding victory this May, only to be lumped, perhaps unflatteringly, in with councils and metro mayors as examples of Labour Actually Running Things.
Phoning it in when it comes to talking about the Union isn’t novel, indeed for the most part that’s what the previous two Labour leaders did. Vague assertions about the United Kingdom being one country definitely did grate in some Scottish and Welsh Labour circles as largely unhelpful, but they paled in comparison to Starmer’s display of muscular unionism at conference.
Starmer’s assertion that a Scottish person donating blood doesn’t care if it ends up in the body of an English or Welsh person and that makes them British (aside from being a downright bizarre attempt to adapt Nye Bevan’s ‘what’s the difference between Welsh and English sheep’ analogy) at best fundamentally misunderstands what motivates and sustains Welsh and Scottish nationalists, and at worst naively tars them all as being insular right wing nationalists.
The mainstream and the majority view of each respective independence movement isn’t the hackneyed extremist caricature used by war-weary Better Together-ultras to scare Labour activists from the home counties. It’s one that’s broadly social democratic, outward-facing and tolerant. And that’s critically part of the reason the SNP have been able to win over so many Labour voters. Independence being not a contradiction of progressive values but a coherent basis upon which those values can be actually put into place in their communities.
It goes without saying that the SNP do not govern particularly well. Indeed, some English Labour members who invariably find themselves blindly supporting Sturgeon for pro-EU or anti-Tory reasons would do well to actually acquaint themselves with her record in government. But that does not mean that they don’t summarily reflect middle opinion in Scotland when it comes to how Scots view the future of their country.
It is not a new assertion that, one way or another, Labour’s route to majority government runs straight through Scotland, predicated on making some inroads in areas they’ve lost to the SNP. It should also not take a political mastermind to recognise that the Scottish electorate, who increasingly identify more as Scottish (with British as a tertiary aspect of their national identity), are unlikely to countenance backing a leader repeating blithe assertions of Britishness with no tangible offer on equalising the balance of power between the nations.
It may seem grubby and transactional to address something so apparently sacred as national identity in this way. However, if any version of the Union is to survive, plainly more power has to end up in the hands of the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments.
In a recent interview with The Social Review, Carwyn Jones reflected on this point. Welsh Labour, ostensibly a unionist party, occupies this middle opinion in Wales. Middle opinion that recognises and acknowledges the bonds that tie the constituent nations of Britain together, that understands the value of co-operation between them, but ultimately knows that the more governing that can be done in Wales, by the Welsh, the better.
A UK Labour Party thinks it can paper over the cracks and muddle along into government without winning in Scotland is not serious. People won’t get behind vagueries and allusions to a collective Britishness that have not been properly felt outside of England in decades. The Labour leadership would do well to familiarise themselves with the thinking in Welsh Labour on radical federalism, which increasingly looks to be like a confederal model of the UK.
The collective sharp intake of breath by Welsh Labour at Starmer’s comments on the Union can and should be the opportunity for him and his office to learn from a Labour Party that actually wins things, let’s hope he takes it.