Keir Starmer's reinvention of a Tony Blair-style New Labour is a blunder that will lose votes in Scotland – Joyce McMillan

Winning is more important than party unity, said Keir Starmer in Brighton, earlier this week; and on Wednesday, in his speech to the Labour Party conference, he made absolutely clear what he meant by that.
Keir Starmer's speech may not have gone down as well in Scotland as other parts of the UK (Picture: Leon Neal/Getty Images)Keir Starmer's speech may not have gone down as well in Scotland as other parts of the UK (Picture: Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Keir Starmer's speech may not have gone down as well in Scotland as other parts of the UK (Picture: Leon Neal/Getty Images)

His aim was to restore the battered reputation of the Blair leadership of Labour, not least by emphasising its achievements in what might be called “real levelling up”; and to reposition his party towards the recognised “centre” of British politics.

He therefore dismissed his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn as lacking a serious plan for government, and staged a Neil-Kinnock-style confrontation with a few left-wing hecklers in the hall, whom he was able to dismiss with ease; and in the aftermath of the speech, something almost like a sob of relief could be heard, passing through some sections of the British political and media establishment.

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The UK’s creaky old two-party system depends on the existence of a strong and credible opposition to provide any semblance of democratic accountability; and the general post-speech view, among mainstream UK commentators, seemed to be that the Labour Party was “back” – back in the patriotic camp, back to the Blairism that both voters and commentators loved for so long, and above all, back within the Overton window of acceptable political discourse, as defined from Westminster.

Nor would anyone in the UK, regardless of political sympathies, be wise to ignore the significance of that moment; for if Labour is restored to a position of reasonable respect in UK political culture, the whole tone of public debate – as perceived by most ordinary citizens – will change.

Starmer will be framed as a potential Prime Minister, while the end of the Boris Johnson era will begin to seem possible; and that shift will pose challenges to Starmer’s political opponents – not least, of course, to the SNP, who depend for much of their electoral appeal, particularly to former Labour voters, on the sense that England is now irrevocably set on a right-wing path which Scotland does not wish to follow.

The approach Starmer has chosen is fraught with risks, though; not least in the sheer fragility of any Labour revival built on a top-down nod from assorted establishment gatekeepers, including the danger – which should be well understood, after the Blair era – of proposing changes in policy, while not daring to challenge the right-wing premises that frame the debate.

His passive acceptance of Brexit, for example, betrays his position as the hostage of an electoral system that puts the power to decide elections in the hands of a few hundred thousand swing voters in marginal seats, while obliging him completely to ignore the 16 million voters who voted against Brexit.

And it is significant that his silence on Brexit is combined not only with an enthusiastic rhetorical embrace of “patriotism”, but also with a notably ill-informed analysis of Scottish politics, which persists in framing the SNP alongside the Conservatives as reactionary enemies of social progress, in defiance of all available evidence on the subject.

Now of course it is true that those centre-left Scots who, in their hundreds of thousands, have switched their support to the SNP since 2005, might be tempted back towards a Labour Party that had a robust set of progressive economic and social policies, and also looked as if it might win a Westminster election. Most Scots have always made, and will continue to make, pragmatic decisions about the value of the Union, based on the quality of the deal being offered.

Yet perhaps because he takes too much advice from the remnants of the Labour Party in Scotland, Starmer seems absolutely unable to grasp the truth that the SNP are not a right-wing party, and that most SNP voters are former or potential Labour supporters who switched precisely because they wanted a more effective and explicit opposition to Tory values than New Labour seemed to be providing.

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The return to Blairite principles and language, in other words, may be an effective move for Starmer in the great dance of English politics; but in Scottish political discourse, that language smacks less of realism, and more of another unnecessary capitulation to Thatcherite thinking and values.

And when that is combined with the ludicrous and insulting suggestion that the SNP and the Tories are on the same side – an assertion which is not true of their economic and social policies, and even less true of their attitudes to national identity and global issues – then Starmer is effectively destroying his chances of winning back lost Labour support in Scotland, every time he speaks on the subject.

How all of this will end is difficult to predict, of course. The Starmer revival in Labour’s fortunes may prove as short-lived as it is shallow, driven almost entirely by “optics”; or it may strike a deeper chord, and become a substantial movement capable of challenging Conservative rule in England, and therefore across the UK. What is clear, though, is that those at Westminster who are interested in preserving the Union would be well advised to make sure that it is the latter.

And they should try to ensure, also, that when Gordon Brown’s Constitutional Commission finally reports to Starmer – and both men once again lift their voices to talk about Scotland – they will stop making the elementary pre-1970s’ error of framing SNP supporters as “tartan Tories”.

Instead, they might try to show some basic understanding of the values and motives of the voters they have lost since 2005, and some belated respect for their new party of choice; a party which, in terms of the values outlined by Starmer this week, is absolutely not the Labour Party’s enemy, but – whether either party likes it or not – its very close ideological friend.

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