Labour tried to face both ways on Brexit and now appears to be trying to do the same thing on Scottish independence, writes Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP.
If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results, then somebody really better check to see if the Labour Party is OK.
Last week, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell sent shockwaves through Scottish politics, and his Scottish party for that matter, by signalling in a remark at a Fringe show that Labour would likely drop its opposition to a second independence referendum in exchange for the SNP supporting Jeremy Corbyn becoming Prime Minister. Richard Leonard hadn’t got the memo. He rushed out a release restating his own take on party policy, but still the shift was reasserted by Corbyn’s right-hand man.
Bizarrely, it suggests a further extension of the policy that cost Labour so heavily at the European election: the doctrine of ‘constructive ambiguity’.
It’s a bit of a mouthful but constructive ambiguity basically boils down to trying to play both sides at once. Initially it only applied to Brexit. It stood as a means of triangulating a position which would please both their Leave-voting constituencies in England and reassure their Remain voters in metropolitan London and university towns. It failed. Spectacularly.
Labour learned the hard way that, when it comes to constitutional politics, you cannot ride both horses. They had tried to convince Leave voters that they were a party wedded to honouring the referendum result whilst simultaneously reassuring Remainers that they were going to block Brexit. They forgot one key factor: both groups were hearing both sets of messages and didn’t believe either.
The softening of their policy towards a second indyref feels like the same gambit, trying to appeal to Yes voters whilst maintaining an ostensibly pro-UK platform to retain their pro-Union supporters. Without an urgent course correction, it could bring about their ruin.
Over the past four years, Labour have been quietly conducting a post-mortem into why they were all but wiped out in Scotland in the 2015 general election. They believe they came adrift of substantial sections of their base when the SNP started to win over traditional Labour demographics to the Yes cause.
That feeling that “Labour isn’t on my side” was compounded, they believe, by images of Labour politicians sharing platforms with the old enemy – the Conservative Party.
The result of that post-mortem was a two-stage policy shift, the first, uttered several times in recent months, that Labour would not campaign alongside the Conservatives in any future independence referendum.
The second was the withdrawal of hostility to that referendum at Westminster.
There are already huge signs that this isn’t playing well among their remaining supporters. After offending their ultra-Remain core with ambiguity over Brexit, they are causing equal or even graver offence to the substantial wing of the party who loathe the division that will come with a second border poll.
Moderate Labour activists stared on in disbelief. That reaction was elegantly captured by Duncan Hothersall, a respected Labour activist and blogger, when he described his party in Scotland as the political equivalent of a ghost in the movie The Sixth Sense – “Most people don’t even notice it, and it doesn’t realise it’s already dead.”
Several journalists have already told me of their private expectations that my own party, the Lib Dems will benefit handsomely from being the only party to stand full square behind Scotland’s place in the UK and Scotland’s place in the EU.
That may be the case, but I take no pleasure in Labour’s shift. A plurality of voices making the positive case for our place in both unions is absolutely vital if we are to save either. Labour need to reverse this latest shift on indyref2 and do it fast.
Alex Cole-Hamilton is the Liberal Democrat MSP for Edinburgh Western