Euan McColm: Jeremy Corbyn’s pipe dream deals death blow to Scottish Labour

Just when it seemed the patient was dead, there was a flicker of the eyelids, a quickening of the pulse.

Richard Leonard is too closely allied to Jeremy Corbyn to offer a stout rebuttal of John McDonnell's stand on a second independence referendum. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty
Richard Leonard is too closely allied to Jeremy Corbyn to offer a stout rebuttal of John McDonnell's stand on a second independence referendum. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty

Scottish Labour – for decades, the seemingly unassailable dominant force in our politics – began to grow weak a dozen years ago. And its decline was rapid.

First there was the loss, by a single seat, to the SNP of the 2007 Holyrood election. This was followed by humiliation after humiliation at the hands of voters who would once have backed the party without a second thought.

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By the 2015 general election, Scottish Labour was on its deathbed, returning only one MP to the SNP’s 56.

The party, which had once been able to count on victory, was done for, surely? This was a humiliation on a previously unthinkable scale. The SNP was now the popular choice of those who’d once backed Labour without question.

Then came the 2017 snap election and the party did better than anyone – not least the winning candidates – expected. With seven MPs it seemed there might still be life in Scottish Labour.

Well, Jeremy Corbyn will see about that.

In recent days, the leadership of UK Labour – with the meek compliance of their Scottish counterparts – have delivered what looks awfully like a fatal blow to the party.

The SNP has been able to take a break from relentlessly pummelling its old rivals while Labour commits an act of self-harm from which it might never recover.

Interviewed in Edinburgh last week, Corbyn’s closest political ally, shadow chancellor John McDonnell, said that Labour would not stand in the way of a second independence referendum.

Labour MSPs – most of them, anyway – were horrified. Opposition to the SNP’s plans for separation has been at the heart of everything Scottish Labour has said and done for decades. The argument that socialism and nationalism are incompatible is a fundamental one for Scottish Labour members.

Any thoughts that, perhaps, McDonnell had spoken without thinking were dispelled a day later when he doubled down on what was now the Labour Party’s view on independence. Scottish leader Richard Leonard let it be known that he remained opposed to a referendum but it took his Holyrood colleagues to seriously challenge McDonnell’s remarks. This they did against the wishes of Leonard, who is a Corbynista to his finger tips.

Corbyn and McDonnell’s reason for ditching Labour’s opposition to indyref2 is clear. With speculation mounting that Prime Minister Boris Johnson will soon call a general election, the Labour leadership reckons its best chance of getting near power will be through a deal with the SNP. By dropping opposition to another referendum, Labour hopes to encourage the nationalists – who harbour their own doubts about Corbyn’s suitability to be prime minister – to consider a post-election pact.

This, undoubtedly, makes some kind of sense. Johnson may be a divisive figure for whom a general election would represent something of a gamble, but Corbyn, too, is marked out by his ability to polarise voters. His failure to romp to victory against Theresa May in 2017 is ample evidence of this.

But while the idea of dropping opposition to another independence referendum might have some appeal to Corbyn and Co, it is clear that they have not fully thought through the implications of their position.

Former Scottish Labour voters who believe in independence are now fiercely loyal to the SNP. Like scorned lovers, they despise the party they once adored. Capitulation on the independence question by Labour won’t see those voters return to the fold. Rather, they will view such an act with contempt. It will be evidence that Labour bases its decisions on expedience rather than principle.

Meanwhile, those who have remained loyal to Labour – voters who believe that independence would be a mistake but who cannot bring themselves to support Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson – will feel utterly betrayed by this volte face. These voters, members, and activists have stuck to the line that another referendum would be deeply damaging because they actually believe this to be true. I know from conversations with a number of Labour members in Scotland that there is real anger over Corbyn’s decision to pull the rug from under their feet.

And the implications don’t stop there. In 2015, one of the Conservative Party’s most successful campaign messages in English constituencies was the idea that support for then Labour leader Ed Miliband would open the door to the SNP having real influence across the UK. Four years ago, this “vote Labour, get SNP” message had no basis in actual fact. There was no suggestion of any kind of post-election pact or agreement between the nationalists and Labour but the very suggestion that such a stitch-up might be in the offing was enough to send a chill down the spines of some English voters.

Corbyn and McDonnell have now ensured that any future warnings from the Tories about such a deal will be based on fact. The Labour leadership has handed the Tories a line of attack on a plate.

And what happens to Labour if it backs a second referendum and the nationalists win?

The only reason Corbyn is willing to indulge the SNP’s referendum dream is because Labour has always relied on Scottish MPs to take it over the victory line in general elections. For decades, those Scottish MPs were – conveniently – Labour ones.

Now, Corbyn needs either to see off the Scottish nationalists or accommodate them if he is to become prime minister.

But his time in power will be brief if the SNP leads the Yes campaign to victory in a second referendum. The loss of 59 Scottish seats from the Westminster equation will create a deep and abiding advantage for the Tories south of the border. Corbyn might do a deal with the SNP to get into power but the consequences of that deal may well be that Labour is locked out of Downing Street indefinitely.

Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to indulge the SNP is shortsighted and can only damage the Labour Party.