Predictably, Margaret Hodge’s dodgy tape recording of Jeremy Corbyn on anti-semitism ruled the roost this weekend. It dominated BBC Radio 4’s World This Weekend, and the front page of the Sunday Times. Meanwhile the Observer ran with warnings that Labour faces a wipe-out unless Corbyn backs a second Brexit referendum. Jings. Anyone would think Labour was surging in the opinion polls or something – and of course, they are.
It was left to Labour’s arch-critics at the Telegraph to publish the awkward truth; a poll of polls shows Labour would be the largest party in the event of a General Election tomorrow, whilst the Tories would lose 59 seats.
Actually, that’s nothing new.
Last week Labour’s lead was 9 per cent in a Harbury Strategy poll; 3 per cent in a Kantar poll; 4 per cent in a Survation poll, 2 per cent for BMG and the week before 5 per cent in a Deltapoll for the Mail on Sunday.
Indeed, there’s been a slow leftward lurch since Fiona Bruce’s infamous Question Time howler when she wellied into Diane Abbott about Labour’s parlous state in the polls. Actually, Labour were level-pegging with the Tories at the time – but who knew? Or rather, who in charge of Establishment narrative-making wanted to know?
In Sunday’s poll, another important result was tucked away. The SNP is predicted to pick up 11 seats which – if accurate – would bring their tally to 46. Not quite the system-busting 56 achieved in 2015 just after the indyref. But enough to give Jeremy Corbyn a working majority. Put another way, without the SNP, Labour could be the largest party without any clear route to government. The Lib Dem vote is also finally on the rise – the latest poll predicts they’ll add another 14 seats. But put together with their measly 11 current seats, that wouldn’t quite be enough to edge Labour over the line into power.
So, is a Labour/SNP coalition or supply and confidence agreement on the cards – and if it is, might that allow Nicola Sturgeon to demand a Section 30 order from Corbyn as the price of her support? And if it does, is that a bit of an independence game-changer?
Yes it is.
Now admittedly, a Labour/SNP win is currently just conjecture. These are opinions polls – not results. The pollsters probably sampled too few Scottish voters to be accurate and several other opinion-changing electoral tests are likely before another general election – including English local elections and the probable European poll, both of which could see a shift from the main parties to Ukip or Nigel Farage’s new Brexit party. Especially since the broadcast media appeared to heave an enormous, collective sigh of relief the minute Farage appeared back on the political scene and have rushed to place him centre stage once again. It’s true too that the collapsing Conservative Party will nonetheless try to delay a general election for as long as possible. But if recent months have proved anything, it is that no scenario can be completely ruled out on the juddering British political scene.
I’ve no doubt Labour and the SNP are already talking behind the scenes – hardly surprising or very difficult these days since prominent MPs from both parties have spent weeks working together on hard Brexit-avoiding amendments. So the polls should give independence supporters cause for cheer.
Theresa May’s haughty “now is still not the time” is not necessarily the last word on Scottish Independence in 2019.
Happily, the demise of Labour in Scotland and the distancing of Scottish and UK Labour since Corbyn’s election, means the UK party has very little to lose by agreeing to a process that could let Scotland go. Before the indyref, received wisdom insisted that Labour couldn’t win at Westminster without a strong contingent from north of the Border. But since Scottish Labour’s virtual annihilation in 2015, Corbyn has realised he must largely count Scotland out. Of course, it’s true that Labour has no recent experience of power-sharing (the Lib-Lab pact was 40 long years ago) and there’s no doubt the media would portray a pact with the SNP as a colossal admission of weakness.
It’s also impossible to ignore Labour’s extraordinary capacity to shoot itself in the foot. Whilst the anti-semitism story is an old one, it’s still being mishandled and is not likely to leave the front pages anytime soon. The Brexit dilemma is a real one – lack of leadership and fence-sitting have become Corbyn defaults on the biggest dilemma facing Britain. Actually, Labour’s position on that other complex national emergency – the climate emergency – is equally floppy. But in a UK first past the post election, English voters have Hobson’s Choice. Scots can vote to leave the whole sorry mess – but English voters can’t. So whatever happens at council or European level, a UK election is likely to focus minds in England on the two big parties. And despite Labour’s evident weaknesses, the prospect of a Brexiteer Tory leader and Prime Minister will make most progressive voters in England conclude that Corbyn is now the lesser of two evils.
So, the prospect of a Labour/SNP pact is a real one, and may further deter Nicola Sturgeon from backing any unofficial poll when she makes her long-awaited announcement on a second independence referendum on 23 April. Of course, that needn’t stop her launching a strategy, which could adopt citizens’ assemblies over the summer to formulate a new independence blueprint as Joanna Cherry MP has suggested. It needn’t stop the First Minister naming a preferred date for a second ballot or going through the forlorn formalities of asking Theresa May for a Section 30 order.
But the whiff of longer-term change is now in the air.
The recent Leith by-election result showed the SNP and Greens picking up votes – which suggests the Euro elections will be a proxy Brexit referendum re-run with only the independence-supporting parties and the squeezed Lib Dems aligning convincingly with the popular Remain option. Obviously, nothing’s certain, but an even stronger Remain vote north of the Border will act as further evidence of material change and of the irretrievably different political cultures that now exist on either side if the Border.
A second independence vote may seem to have taken a back seat to Brexit. But things may be about to change.