Yvette Cooper has made a serious miscalculation in terms of preserving the Union, argues Allan Massie
Labour lost the General Election catastrophically here in Scotland. It did so because so many who had formerly voted Labour deserted the party and defected to the SNP. There were several reasons for this, among them the complacency of the long-dominant party and the weakness of its constituency organisations. But it also owed something, a good deal indeed, to the SNP’s propaganda and its charge that in allying itself to the other unionist parties in the referendum campaign, Labour “had got into bed with the Tories”.
This accusation seems to have alarmed, even panicked, Yvette Cooper, one of the candidates for the Labour leadership. “Labour’s vision for Scotland”, she says, “is so different from the Tories’ that we shouldn’t ever allow ourselves to look as if we are part of the same vision because it is so very different.”
Really? Ever again? Is Labour no longer a Unionist party? Ms Cooper’s husband Ed Balls, as Labour’s shadow chancellor, supported George Osborne’s refusal to countenance a currency union if Scotland voted for independence. Did she agree with him, then? Or has she suddenly decided that the break-up of the United Kingdom is desirable?
Of course Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats were on the same side in the referendum campaign. How could it have been otherwise? All are unionist parties. What united them was for the time being more important than what divided them.
Actually, the No or Better Together campaign was led by Labour. Its chief was Alastair Darling, chancellor of the exchequer in Gordon Brown’s government. Though Ruth Davidson, Michael Moore, Alastair Carmichael and Charles Kennedy all campaigned vigorously and effectively in defence of the Union, the big guns were all Labour: Douglas Alexander, John Reid, Jim Murphy, Joanne Lamont and in the last weeks especially Gordon Brown whose impassioned dismissal of Alex Salmond’s identification of the SNP with Scotland raised the spirits of unionist voters from all parties.
Far from Labour “getting into bed with the Tories”, it would be more accurate to say that the Tories lined up behind Labour.
But now Ms Cooper tells us that “Labour’s vision for Scotland is so different from the Tories” that “we shouldn’t ever allow ourselves to look as if we are part of the same vision.” Is she suggesting that if we have a second referendum, she would refuse to share a platform with a Tory in defence of the Union?
Can she really mean that? If she does, she is certainly not fit to lead the Labour Party.
What does she mean by Labour’s “vision for Scotland”? In one sense it is indeed different from any Tory vision; the policies of a Labour government would not be those of a Tory government. Fair enough; they might indeed be much like the SNP’s policies on social and economic matters. But, unless Ms Cooper is preparing to tear up the Union flag, Labour’s stance on the national question and its vision for Scotland are the same as the Tories’. It is disingenuous, even dishonest, to pretend otherwise.
Moreover her words insult all those Labour members and supporters who campaigned for the Union, canvassing voters and enduring the abuse directed at them from the extremist wing of the SNP. They did so because they rejected separatism and value the United Kingdom, because they believe that you can be both Scottish and British, comfortable with both identities. Now a candidate for their party’s leadership is apparently telling them they were wrong, that preserving the United Kingdom matters less than avoiding any association with the Tories. How stupid and cynical can you get?
Of course it’s clear that Ms Cooper is appealing to those former Labour voters whose defection to the SNP gave that party its sweeping victory in the General Election. It’s equally clear than any Labour revival here will be possible only if a large number of these voters can be persuaded to return to the Labour fold.
Yet attempting to woo them by seeming to disassociate herself from the Better Together campaign is likely to be futile; it simply won’t be believed. So she will irritate those who remained loyal to both the Union and the Labour Party without regaining those who voted for independence in the referendum and for the SNP in the General Election.
Certainly Labour has to win back these defectors if it isn’t to become as impotent as the Scottish Tory party, or indeed the Labour party in the south of England. But I can’t think Ms Cooper’s is an intelligent way to go about doing this. She should remember first that there is a Unionist majority in Scotland, and that a majority of those who voted No in September have almost certainly voted Labour in the past.
Moreover it is not in Labour’s interest to dwell on the National Question; this is just what the SNP would like it to do. There isn’t going to be another independence referendum in the immediate future. The next test of opinion will be the election for the Scottish Parliament in May, and in that election an intelligent Labour campaign would ignore the national question and direct its attack at the performance of the SNP government.
There is plenty of material there: poor schools performance, the cuts imposed on colleges of further education, NHS failures, the weakening of local government resulting in part from the SNP’s council tax freeze, excessive centralisation, the misguided creation of a single police force and bad legislation, notably the deplorable Named Persons Act. Instead of worrying about its necessary referendum alliance with the Tories and the Liberal Democrats, Labour should focus its attention on the SNP, and no longer give it a free ride. There’s plenty for the party to get its teeth into.
As for Ms Cooper, I confess I had thought her the best of a bad lot of candidates for the Labour leadership. Big mistake, evidently. Anyway I can’t see how any Scottish Labour member who voted No in September could vote for Ms Cooper now.