Scottish Labour’s revival rests on dropping indyref opposition - Joyce McMillan

Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn with Scottish leader Richard Leonard campaigning in Glasgow. Picture: John Devlin
Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn with Scottish leader Richard Leonard campaigning in Glasgow. Picture: John Devlin
Share this article
Have your say

If UK Labour is looking for a Scottish ally in future, it will have to turn to the SNP, writes Joyce McMillan.

Two weeks until polling day, in this wintry general election campaign; and the latest opinion polls are frankly grim for every party in the UK, except the Conservatives and the SNP.

The SNP stand - so we’re told by this week’s YouGov poll - to win 43 of Scotland’s 59 seats, eight more than in 2017; a Scotland-only poll from Ipsos Mori puts their tally even higher.

The Liberal Democrats seem set to win many votes from the ignored 16 million who do not want to leave the EU, while gaining very few seats.

Labour’s urgent message on the need for radical change to tackle the climate crisis and social inequality is apparently not breaking through; it’s predicted that they may lose more than 40 of the seats they won two years ago, leaving Boris Johnson’s Conservatives with a substantial overall majority.

And for Scottish Labour, the prospects are apparently even worse, with predicted SNP gains from Labour - of at least five of the six Scottish seats Labour regained in 2017 - leaving Scottish Labour with only two Westminster MPs.

Now of course, at this point, caveats must be entered. Many Scottish seats sit on such a knife-edge than the merest puff of political wind, at local or national level, could confound these predictions. Yet if even remotely accurate, these poll figures emphasise one unavoidable truth about current Scottish politics; namely just how completely, over the last 15 years, the SNP has replaced Labour as the party of choice for middle-of-the-road, left-leaning voters in Scotland.

And as the UK moves forward through what is bound to be a long period of crisis, this creates an almost unprecedented situation in British politics, where the only hope of throwing any roadblocks into the path of a Tory government with a genuinely alarming economic and constitutional agenda will lie in the ability to work together of the three largest non-Tory opposition parties, including Labour and the SNP.

The importance of that co-operation depends, of course, on the election result; if Boris Johnson romps away with a majority of 20 or more, then there will be little any opposition alliance can do to prevent his government from legislating as it pleases.

If the election proves tighter than predicted, though, the SNP has already made it clear that it would rather see Labour in Downing Street, provided a confidence-and-supply deal can be done; and given that many of the policies proposed in the Labour manifesto - from the abolition of student fees to free personal care - are precisely those already being implemented by the Scottish Government, a potential Westminster alliance between the two parties seems fairly natural, and potentially viable. So far as social and economic policy is concerned, there has rarely, in the last generation, been much more than a cigarette-paper’s-width of difference between Labour and the SNP; and the disagreement over independence has therefore often been exaggerated into a major matter of principle, when in fact, for many, it’s merely a difference of opinion about which constitutional arrangement would best support a viable 21st century social democracy.

And now, that common ground between SNP and Labour is becoming obvious at UK level, and is placing Scottish Labour - which still sometimes likes to demonise the SNP as “Tartan Tories” - in an ever more isolated position. The mood music from the current Labour leadership is far less intransigently opposed to the SNP’s aspirations to a second referendum than that of the Conservatives; and in recent weeks, former Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale has talked publicly about how this repositioning leaves Scottish Labour exposed, denying it the chance to appear both fiercely anti-austerity, and solidly unionist.

The wider truth about the recent history of Labour in Scotland, though, is that Scottish Labour’s diehard unionist phase was always likely to diminish its support in the long term. At best, as in 2017, it creates an uneasy alliance between radical spirits attracted by Jeremy Corbyn’s policies, and old-school Labour unionists; at worst, Labour in Scotland find themselves squeezed between Conservatives who will always outdo them in the unionism game, and an SNP that has both a more realistic chance of delivering social democratic policies in Scotland, and an increasingly persuasive argument that if England keeps voting Conservative, independence will finally represent the only route towards the kinds of future most Scots appear to want. This week’s Scottish Ipsos Mori poll gave Scottish Labour just 16% of the vote, compared with 27% in 2017; and it looks as if this time, the squeeze may be in full operation.

All of which means that if UK Labour is looking for a Scottish ally in future, it will have to turn to the SNP, as much as to what is left of the Labour Party in Scotland. That this is a bitter pill for some Scottish Labour supporters goes without saying. If Labour’s priority is socialism or social democracy, though, it can hardly continue to talk, in Scotland, as if preventing Scottish independence is its primary concern. That policy always conflicted with the party’s strong founding tradition of support for Home Rule; and given the current condition of UK politics, and the likely continuing dominance of the Tories, the idea that any social democrat in Scotland would seriously prioritise the union over a faster, clearer path to a more just and sustainable future, is likely to seem increasingly untenable.

This is not to say, of course, that Scottish Labour should simply throw in the towel. The party has plenty of supporters who voted Yes to independence in 2014, and would reserve the right to do so again; but the point is that Labour’s priority should always be social justice, rather than any one constitutional arrangement. And if there is to be any long-term revival of the party that once spoke so decisively for Scotland, it must, I think, be on these terms; that people may take whatever view they like on union, independence or federalism - but that in the end, Labour is the party that will stand for the same radical principles of freedom, equality, fraternity and justice, whatever the constitutional weather, and whether Scotland ever achieves its independence, or not.