24 April 2020

Where does Scottish Labour go under Keir Starmer?

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Because it returns only a solitary Labour MP to the House of Commons, Scotland did not feature prominently in the recent party leadership contest won by Sir Keir Starmer.

Nevertheless, how the party – and that sole parliamentary representative from north of the border – approaches the Scottish question will have a profound impact on Starmer’s chances of becoming prime minister when the next general election finally arrives. Even before the 2019 debacle, it was near impossible for Labour to win an overall majority at Westminster without a decent smattering of Scottish Labour MPs catching the train southwards after polling day.

One barely discussed benefit of the coronavirus pandemic is that in Scotland, there’s been precious little talk of constitutional change these last few weeks. But whenever the new “normal” arrives and the lockdown eases, the political argument will be exhumed. The SNP may have, out of necessity, dropped their demands for another independence referendum this year, but in the run-up to next year’s Holyrood elections, it will be the defining issue of the campaign.

Under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour easily gave way to the nationalist argument that votes on self-determination are a fundamental right for any nation, even when everyone had agreed to abide by the result of the previous one held just a handful of years earlier; the dismantling of the British state is not a prospect that keeps Corbyn or John McDonnell awake at night. But their various interventions in support of a second referendum were made without consulting the Scottish part of their party, and came as a deadly blow to hopes of electoral recovery after the wipe-out of all but one of its MPs in 2015.

Eventually Scottish Labour seemed to settle for an uneasy compromise: it still opposed independence and would campaign against it in any future referendum but would not stand in the way of such a referendum if the SNP won a mandate for it at the 2021 Scottish parliamentary elections. Throughout this largely irrelevant internal debate, the F-word was frequently used. No, not that one – I mean federalism.

This “solution” solved nothing and pleased nobody. Unionists turned their backs on Labour because they were acquiescing to the nationalists demands for a rerun referendum after years of promising that the 2014 result was final. And nationalists were contemptuous of a party that maintained its support for the hated Union.

Starmer’s election as leader, and Ian Murray, the sole Scottish Labour MP’s appointment as Shadow Scottish Secretary, provided an opportunity to strengthen the party’s position on an issue that remains the fundamental dividing line in Scottish politics and will do so for years to come. Murray’s initial comments were welcomed by Unionists: no to another referendum and no to independence. But…

Murray recognises that Labour has to pick a side. The previous position of trying to please both sides infuriated everyone, resulting in another Labour wipe-out last December, with Murray again the sole survivor. It is frequently forgotten, especially by commentators based in London, that support for the Union still (mostly) outstrips support for independence in opinion polls.

But the Edinburgh South MP has described federalism, or “something close” to it as the “Labour option” to be added to the binary mix of Unionism v independence. Because of the nationalists’ electoral success in Scotland and Labour’s unpopularity, the whole of the UK must undergo a constitutional upheaval, with – inevitably – a constitutional convention set up to explore a new way for all four home nations to be governed.

Not only is there no interest in such a project in England, there’s none in Scotland either. The idea that federalism (or close to it) would somehow skewer the nationalists’ ambitions is as absurd as former Shadow Scottish Secretary George Robertson’s quaint notion, in 1996, that devolution would kill the SNP “stone dead”. Any constitutional settlement that leaves Scots, however tenuously, as citizens of the United Kingdom would be opposed by the SNP and their supporters every bit as fiercely as they oppose the Union today.

More important than electoral tactics, however, is the fundamental weakness in Murray’s (and Labour’s) approach. In promoting a solution that nobody wants or cares about, they are pointedly refusing to defend and support the Union as is. And Scots have the right to ask why. What is it about the status quo that Labour cannot bring itself to endorse? And, having asked the question, voters might be logically inclined to wonder if, since Labour have such a problem with the Union, maybe the SNP are right after all in their hatred of it.

Two decades of Labour capitulation to the nationalist agenda, of decrying the Union even after its own constitutional “reforms” were applied, has left the Union weaker than at any point in its 300-year history. Labour’s solution? More of the same.

Voters tend to respect politicians and parties that take a stand, who pick a side, even when that side is perceived as being the least popular one. For five years, no one has really understood what Labour stands for on Scotland. Despite Starmer’s arrival, we’re no clearer, except that the Union remains a subject of derision for its leaders. Another round to the SNP.

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Tom Harris is a former Labour MP and author of 'Ten Years in the Death of the Labour Party'

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.