Gender Recognition Reform Bill, Brexit and independence referendum question offer scope for Labour to make inroads on SNP support – John McLellan

There are few easier ways to wind up my Labour friends by telling them the Brexit referendum result was all their fault.

Anas Sarwar and Keir Starmer should work on a much clearer vision of the UK's future relationship with the EU (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Anas Sarwar and Keir Starmer should work on a much clearer vision of the UK's future relationship with the EU (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

“I’m not having that. Are you seriously saying Brexit was nothing to do with the Tories?” is the usual incredulous response.

That Britain’s departure from the EU was a direct consequence of a Conservative decision is undeniable, but it’s already being lost in the fog of political battle that the 2016 referendum was called by David Cameron in the belief the outcome would be a vote to stay, settle the European question and finish off UKIP as a serious right-wing threat.

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As we know now, the problem was that while he understood his own party was divided, he underestimated the extent to which the same anti-European feeling ran deeper in Labour’s post-industrial heartlands. Uncoupling Brexit from normal party politics allowed those Labour voters to express dissatisfaction with their lot without changing their allegiance, leaving the Remain campaign heavily reliant on Labour’s ability to understand and reach its own voters. It turned out London-centric leaders either had little genuine empathy with working-class voters or, like Jeremy Corbyn, were lukewarm because of a historic left-wing view of the EU as some sort of capitalist conspiracy.

In Scotland, over 300,000 Labour voters had already left for the SNP in the 2015 election, following the 2014 independence referendum, with the party losing all but one of their 41 seats while the Nationalist vote rocketed from 491,386 to 1,454,436, and their six seats became 56. Although both elections returned just one Conservative MP, David Mundell, the total Conservative vote was slightly up, by 23,000 to 434,000. Despite the Brexit vote, in 2017 the Conservative vote leapt to 758,000 and although the SNP lost 476,000 votes, Labour was virtually static on 717,000 and then lost 200,000 of them two years later.

If there is a thread running through the 2014 independence referendum, the subsequent SNP landslides, Brexit and the 2019 Conservative triumph, it is populists understanding how voters want a simple route to a dramatic, overnight improvement to their circumstances, and an equally simple message, endlessly repeated, to persuade them.

As a sixth poll shows a majority for independence, it’s worth looking at a remarkable series of clips assembled last year by the former Better Together chief Blair McDougall in which Nicola Sturgeon’s independence buzz-phrases ─ take back control, people here are best placed to make the decisions which affect our lives, etc ─ are interchangeable with Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson’s Brexit sloganeering.

Effective populism has won the SNP such electoral dominance it can pursue policies far removed from the views of most voters and not suffer any detriment, such as 2012’s Offensive Behaviour at Football Act and now the Gender Recognition Reform (GRR) Bill which is set to complete its passage through the Scottish Parliament this week. Labour’s James Kelly was at the forefront of the successful campaign against the Act which targeted football supporters, repealed in 2018, but on GRR Labour is virtually silent.

Yesterday showed why, with former Scottish leader Kezia Dugdale effectively accusing her predecessor, former First Minster Jack McConnell, of transphobia for telling the Sunday Times he backed a pause because the legislation, to allow anyone over 16 to declare they have changed sex after three months without medical evidence, could be “an incentive for predatory male sex offenders to come to Scotland, identify as female, and have access to women’s hospital wards, rape crisis centres, and prisons”. Not so, said Ms Dugdale, who argued “those opposed to it do not want delays to improve it, they want to use them to dilute and defeat it. Each attempt to postpone or weaken the legislation perpetuates the unfounded stereotype of trans women as violent or predatory”.

For both the SNP and Labour, new laws affecting potentially as few as 2,500 people is a strange hill on which to die, and a new Panelbase poll claimed 68 per cent of voters agree the legislation threatens safety in women-only spaces. Even allowing for error, that means two-thirds of the population agree, and leader Anas Sarwar’s reluctance to take the lead illustrates the extent to which middle-class liberal squeamishness can deflect it from a pragmatic position more in tune with core voters. Or perhaps Mr Sarwar agrees with Ms Dugdale’s that once the bill passes it will all be forgotten about.

Of course, GRR is so far not turning voters off the SNP or independence, with recent polls putting combined support for the three main opposition parties below 60 per cent, and Panelbase putting Yes on 52, but it does suggest Labour could struggle to make further inroads by not going after people with growing doubts about whether the SNP speaks for them.

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GRR is an opportunity to articulate a clear difference from the SNP by being sympathetic to both sides of an increasingly bitter debate but also to create more distance from the disastrous Miliband-Corbyn/Dugdale-Leonard era. The new poll estimated 42 per cent want the prospect of a second independence referendum dropped for five years and it would be in Labour’s interests to attack soft SNP support by ruling it out in that timescale but laying out the criteria for another vote.

The chances of that are slim, and the same goes for Europe, where a recent UK survey showed 57 per cent now believe Brexit was a mistake ─ almost certainly far higher in Scotland ─ and another, from the Tony Blair institute, showing 65 per cent strongly backed following EU regulations if it made imported goods cheaper. In a Scottish context, a clearer vision of the future EU relationship would pay dividends, if the UK party wasn’t leery about the effect in North England ‘Red Wall’ seats.

There are no signs of Labour doing either before the next general election, and if the SNP sweeps the board, I will have another chance to enrage my Labour pals.

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