31 August 2017

How Jeremy Corbyn accidentally saved the Union


Politics is a question of priorities and sometimes, often even, those priorities cut across one another. Moreover, what seems an urgent matter of business in one part of the realm may be thought less vital in another. Brexit, the cause that simultaneously animates millions of voters and paralyses Westminster, is not the main show in town everywhere.

Take an imaginary but far from atypical Scottish voter, for instance. This voter considers himself a lukewarm Tory. He is on the Right, but only moderately so. He has no interest in seeing Jeremy Corbyn become Prime Minister; indeed the thought appals him. But he can see how Corbyn can be useful. Because Labour is not the party of which he is afraid. This voter backed Remain in the Brexit referendum but not with any great conviction. He’s not into, not moved by, the European question save to the extent to which it has an impact on politics closer to home, meaning Scotland, not the UK as a whole.

This voter – and there are hundreds of thousands like him – appreciates that to avoid the worst you must sometimes accept things you might otherwise consider undesirable. If that means Prime Minister Corbyn, then so be it. That might be a shivering thought, but it’s the kind of thing the kingdom can survive.

Because the real enemy – the enemy beyond the wall, if you will – is not Labour. It’s the Scottish National Party. The SNP may have endured an unsatisfactory year, losing 21 seats and 13 per cent of the vote in June, but our voter knows they have not disappeared. They will be back. They are not an imaginary threat and our imaginary voter appreciates that the battle for Scotland, which is also a battle for Britain and its future, has been delayed, not avoided. A second independence referendum might be off the table now; it may not be following the next Scottish parliamentary elections in 2021.

When Jeremy Corbyn was first elected leader of the Labour party, many Unionists in Scotland feared for the worst. That is, they shared the analysis developed by the SNP that Corbyn’s perceived unelectability in England would seriously handicap Unionism in Scotland. Scottish Unionists, including some Conservatives, appreciated that though crushing Corbyn in England might serve the interests of the Conservative party there, it would not necessarily do so in Scotland.

Because, if the Tories remained a minority enthusiasm north of the border while dominating the political scene south of it, the prospect of perhaps 20 years of uninterrupted Tory rule at Westminster would feed the SNP’s narrative that Scotland and England were now fundamentally different political cultures. So much so, in fact, that it made increasingly little sense for them to be part of the same nation-state. Why should Scotland continue to toil under the yoke of Tory government’s fewer than a fifth of Scottish voters endorsed? (Granted, in the devolutionary era this toil, and this yoke, would be markedly less oppressive [sic] than it had been before 1999; nevertheless the point and the story stands.)

You don’t need to agree with this analysis to accept it might have some purchase. After all, it is the offspring of the same analysis that, in large part, created the conditions for devolution and the establishment of a Scottish parliament in the first place. The so-called “democratic deficit” was the most powerful and persuasive argument for devolution. And if that song topped the hit-parade once, it could, newly refreshed and reissued, do so again.

Which leads us towards this startling conclusion: Jeremy Corbyn, lukewarm on the constitutional question himself, has become the unwitting saviour of Unionism. A man once considered a liability has become a surprising, if accidental, ally.

This is the context in which Kezia Dugdale’s resignation as leader of the Scottish Labour party should be understood. Because what happens in England has consequences in Scotland. It matters to Britain that Labour can win in England; if it can win in England, a vote for Labour is less likely to be a wasted vote.

And a vote for Labour in Scotland is much more likely to damage the SNP than the Conservatives. Of the 64 seats Labour must win to form a government after the next Westminster election, 18 of them are in Scotland. Each of them is currently represented by an SNP MP. Similarly, most of Labour’s target seats at the next Holyrood election are presently held by the SNP.

The Conservatives and Labour may no longer be part of the same “Better Together” campaign but they share a common enemy and each fights that enemy on a separate front. Broadly speaking, the Tories take the fight to the SNP in rural and semi-rural areas while Labour does so in the urban central belt.

This, naturally, means the SNP must fight on two fronts and although the party has long tried to be all things to all people it is harder and harder to be the same party for Aberdeenshire farmers as it is for Lanarkshire social workers.

June’s election was a tag-team effort. The Tories (and the Liberal Democrats) took 15 seats from the SNP but it was the six constituencies captured by Labour that transformed the result from one of mere disappointment for the nationalists to one that was only one step above disastrous. Labour’s gains changed the psychology of the moment. Corbynism wasn’t the only force behind those victories but it was the driving one in Glasgow and Lanarkshire.

Viewed from a Unionist perspective – and there are, again, hundreds of thousands of No voters whose primary loyalty is to the national question, not any particular party – this was all to the good. Corbyn had become useful, weakening the SNP but without coming especially close to power himself.

Dugdale, in fact, had already started a march leftwards and this will be continued by whomever succeeds her. Even Labour’s right-wing know the immediate future is on the Left. And if the Scottish Left believes the English Left can win, it becomes safer to vote for Labour in Scotland. By the end of the election, the SNP were reduced to arguing, fatuously, that they were more Corbynite than Corbyn. No vote for the SNP can put Labour into power in London, however.

That appreciation once horribly squeezed the SNP vote at Westminster elections. It did so again, if to a lesser degree, in June.

Meanwhile, the system of proportional representation used at Holyrood elections, is designed to make majorities possible only in the freakiest of circumstances. To win that majority, as the SNP did in 2011, you not only need 45 percent of the vote, you need that 45 percent to be distributed with optimum efficiency.

Unionist voters, then, need a revived Labour party just as surely as they need a relevant Conservative party. But Labour moving to the left in Scotland necessarily opens more space in the centre. Conveniently, that space is precisely where Ruth Davidson wants to lead the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party. As a senior Tory puts it, “Labour are almost certainly going to swing Left which will take votes off the Nats. That gives us a huge opportunity to command the centre and look a bit more credible in our claims to be a potential alternative government”.

This is the pincer movement of which the SNP have reason to be afraid: Labour taking votes on the Left, a moderately centre-right Conservative party offering a moderately centre-right alternative to an electorate that might, after 14 years of nationalist government, have tired of the SNP.

This is, plainly, all speculative but it is one version of an emerging Scottish political future. One in which Unionism, in all its stripes, has the opportunity to clip the SNP’s wings. That requires an alliance of convenience between Labour and the Tories that is all the more convenient for being largely unspoken. It requires them to share something like 60 per cent of the Scottish vote.

But it also requires Labour to remain committed to the United Kingdom. The irony of which being that many of the people in Scotland most enamoured with Corbynism voted to leave the UK in 2014. Here again, however, the incentive to quit is reduced if Labour looks like prevailing at Westminster.

Our Scottish Unionist voter, then, needs Labour to be strong enough in England to be stronger in Scotland. He might not want Labour to actually win at either Holyrood or Westminster but he appreciates that the Tories are not strong enough to thwart the SNP on their own. Hence this delicate balancing of priorities. Hence too, this moment of surprising opportunity for Unionism in all its hues.

Alex Massie is a political commentator