One simple truth about Labour’s challenges north of the border is it must start to eat into the SNP’s polling lead by taking votes away from Nicola Sturgeon’s party rather than pilfering them from a weakened, flailing Conservative Party.
He must also undermine the short-sighted and, if approached correctly, patently ridiculous argument from the SNP that Labour are no different from the Conservatives should they be in government. That makes the Labour leader’s rhetoric around immigration is the biggest threat to their revival.
Pro-EU sentiment in Scotland among SNP voters is significantly higher than in some ‘red wall’ seats Starmer targets, and immigration has been widely accepted as part of Scotland’s answer to its demographic struggles across all the parties in Holyrood.
Why go so hard on the issue? The only possible answer is that his team are terrified a nuanced, regionalised approach will see the wrath of the Daily Mail descend upon the leader. Saying we need fewer foreign NHS staff may well be safe in a London studio but in Scotland it will be ruthlessly picked apart as a demonstration of Labour’s right-wing slide the SNP are keen to promote. It is self-defeating and naive.
Another major flaw for Labour’s strategy in Scotland is its position on a referendum. Starmer was asked why he chooses to protect democracy across the UK by backing Brexit while denying the Scottish people a referendum despite a majority of pro-independence MSPs being voted in on that basis. It is a question that invites conclusions of hypocrisy.
In London the answer of a need for different ‘priorities’ would be accepted. There is no serious opposition to that stance in Westminster. But in Scotland, the position is viewed by the very people Labour need to win back as democracy denial. It screams of a lack of serious strategy on the union. Starmer cannot wait for Gordon Brown forever.
There is room for a position which sets out a route to independence while maintaining opposition to that scenario. The two are not mutually exclusive. Avoiding biting the bullet on the issue due to fears of negative headlines will only undermine Labour’s credibility as a serious alternative.