Why Keir Starmer's dismissal of independence referendum was a poor show - Lesley Riddoch

Who was Sir Keir Starmer hoping to impress in his first major interview of 2021?

The Labour leader conceded yesterday that he’s behind the curve of trade union and council opinion on Covid school closures, has thrown in the towel over Europe and has no interest in indyref2, which he dismissed on BBC’s Andrew Marr programme with a rhetorical device as wooden as it was woeful.

According to Starmer, 'independence isn't a priority on the doorsteps’.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Now it may be a mistake to read too much into a limp, stock response, especially when no-one has accurate ‘doorstep information’ after a year in lockdown.

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer appearing on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show. Picture: Jeff Overs/AFP via Getty ImagesLabour Party leader Keir Starmer appearing on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show. Picture: Jeff Overs/AFP via Getty Images
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer appearing on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show. Picture: Jeff Overs/AFP via Getty Images

Furthermore, with 17 consecutive opinion polls backing independence, the doorsteps of Scotland might be very different places by May or June/August, if the postponement of Holyrood elections proves unavoidable.

But let’s presume Sir Keir meant what he said.

Read More
SNP told to ditch plans for independence referendum by Sir Keir Starmer

What does it say about Labour’s commitment to far-reaching constitutional change if reform must top doorstep wish-lists to be taken seriously? By that measure, first past the post voting and the discredited House of Lords will remain forever intact and Starmer’s own proposal for a fully federal UK falls at the very first hurdle.

Or does his doorstep challenge apply only to Scottish independence? No matter.

The need for voters to put system change ahead of every other domestic concern before anything can change is classically British, obviously unrealistic and quite regressive.

I’d guess that 150 years ago, 'I want clean water from Loch Katrine' was rarely heard on Victorian doorsteps. Glaswegians (with the vote) might have demanded higher wages in the vain hope that could stop their bairns dying from waterborne diseases.

It was up to progressive politicians to translate this voter aspiration into an engineering solution no-one had explicitly demanded – the water pipeline from Loch Katrine to Glasgow that doubled life expectancy within a decade. As for higher wages – we’re still waiting.

Like vital engineering works, constitutional reform rarely tops the priority list until it’s almost too late – until structural change is widely perceived to be the only action that can unclog the works, release civic energy and let other important change get underway.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

It’s a political version of throwing six to start. Unlovely, even irritating, but vitally important to get done properly before the real action can begin – epic levels of planning and intervention to deal with Covid reconstruction and the climate crisis.

So, it’s true.

Voters might well agree with Sir Keir’s imagined doorstep list – the economy, jobs, health, public services – but where does that get us? Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn probably agree with it too.

How well does that list serve as a useful gauge of the popular will – an accurate litmus test of political difference?

Perhaps, the important question is not so much the wish list, but the way and speed at which it will be delivered. In our lifetimes. You know – afore we are a’ deid.

That question, I’d wager, provokes some very different answers.

Hogtied to a hesitant, market-dominated, Euro-phobic larger neighbour, many Scots now know we will never see the kind of economy, jobs, health and public service provision we want.

English voters may want more prosperity and better lives too, but what is the good life now and how to get there?

On the general goals we may agree. On the best route, we do not.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

For example, reduction of Covid transmission is probably public priority number one.

But does that mean all four nations agree on the most important measures to take now?

Does Boris Johnson’s Cabinet support the weekend call by Professors Stephen Reicher and Devi Sridhar to offer cash and a hotel room to folk self-isolating in cramped households, as New York State has done?

Do the majority of English voters accept that low rates of compliance with self-isolation are caused by practical problems – having no cash to live away from workmates and busy households – not moral shortcomings?

I hope so, but I hae ma doots.

An electorate schooled to believe that order is threatened by the undeserving poor, threatening foreigners and weak-willed do-gooders and encouraged to believe the public is generally hopeless, feckless and unable to comply with rules will also tend to believe they’ve only themselves to blame for hardships experienced during self-isolation.

And yet, as Prof Reicher has repeatedly pointed out, most people actually abide by the rules when they possibly can. Unclear and inconsistent health messaging and an absence of practical support provokes non-compliance.

One shared doorstep priority can produce very different policy proposals, when it operates in different political cultures.

Will Keir Starmer rock the boat?

If he doesn’t challenge the rules created by centuries of elitism and privilege, he will end up playing by them and trapped within them as successive Labour governments have been, forced to sneak fairness through by stealth lest the doorsteps of Middle England start quivering with rage.

Mercifully, his problem isn’t our problem any more.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

So when lockdown is over and Sir Keir samples real Scottish doorsteps again, I hope he won’t be offended by short shrift and closed doors.

Folk intending to vote SNP are not questioning his priority list – not much. They just don’t believe it will ever be delivered within the UK.

That’s really not so hard to understand.

- Lesley Riddoch is an award-winning broadcaster, journalist, author and land reform campaigner.



Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.