Labour: In the SNP’s pocket?
This summer the Labour Party has mostly been making headlines by trying not to make headlines. It refused to table a vote of no confidence in Boris Johnson’s new government before recess, refused to put a spokesperson on TV broadcasts to comment on the unexpected fall in Britain’s GDP and, in an almost admirable insistence on talking about the things it cares about rather than the biggest issues facing the country, announced a review into grouse shooting.
Nevertheless, August has seen some very significant moves in Labour’s positioning which could have big implications for a possible autumn general election, for Labour’s chances of forming a government, and for the future of the United Kingdom. It all centres around Scotland.
In an on-stage interview at the Edinburgh Fringe on 6 August, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell said that Labour would not block a new independence referendum for Scotland if the Scottish Parliament voted for one – contradicting existing party policy and the stated views of the Leader of the Scottish Labour Party, Richard Leonard. He even referred to Westminster as “the English parliament” – an inaccurate description of its function which chimes perfectly with the nationalist view of it.
The question of whether to hold another independence referendum remains live, with Brexit giving the Scottish National Party a credible argument that there has been a material change in circumstances since the 2014 independence referendum, and with a recent poll suggesting that 52% of Scottish voters now back independence. Legally, a referendum could only be held with the approval of the UK Government.
The issue is sensitive because Labour is a unionist party which was part of the successful campaign for a No vote in the referendum. Its support collapsed in the post-referendum SNP surge – it lost 40 of its 41 Scottish seats in the 2015 general election, and recovered slightly to seven seats in 2017 – but its membership and its voters are overwhelmingly anti-independence. For a leading UK Labour figure to appear to ignore or overrule the views of Scottish Labour on a central Scottish issue is deeply damaging, and feeds three major narratives of Labour’s political opponents: the SNP’s argument that the Labour Party does not care about Scotland and that Scottish Labour is too weak to stand up for itself; the Scottish Conservatives’ argument that Labour cannot be trusted to preserve the union; and the UK Conservatives’ argument that a future Labour government would be in the pocket of the SNP (used to great effect in a 2015 election poster, adapted by the Conservatives in the light of recent events).
So what was John McDonnell thinking? On one interpretation, this was a considered and deliberate intervention, aimed at ensuring SNP support for a minority Labour government, or even participation in a Labour-led coalition. On another interpretation, this was an off-the-cuff comment reflecting McDonnell’s personal view which need not mean anything else. But while it might have been unplanned, McDonnell’s refusal to back down and follow the party line, even after speaking to Scottish Labour Leader Richard Leonard, shows that he did not misspeak, but meant what he said. And that helps to validate the complaint made in 2014 by one of Leonard’s predecessors as Scottish Labour Leader, Johann Lamont, that the UK Labour Party treats Scotland like a “branch office of a party based in London”.
The fact that Leonard is on the left of the Labour Party, and was considered the pro-Corbyn candidate in the 2017 Scottish Labour leadership election, makes McDonnell’s willingness to overrule and undermine him all the more striking.
McDonnell’s comments sparked what has been described as a “civil war” in Scottish Labour, with many Labour MSPs signing a statement criticising McDonnell but several notably refusing to do so. And they came in the same week that the Party’s Scottish General Secretary, Brian Roy, resigned after five years in post, reportedly after being told he no longer had Leonard’s confidence.
Labour has now repeated its long-standing position that in the event of a hung parliament it would not seek to do deals or form coalitions with anyone. This is more plausible than it sounds: Labour does not need coalition partners so long as it can be confident that other parties will support it in a confidence vote, and it believes that the SNP would not vote to put the Conservatives in power in Scotland.
The risk, though, is that just as in 2015 it does not sound very convincing, even if it is true. Labour’s strategic challenge is that the more likely it appears that it could be in power after a general election, the more credible its opponents’ arguments become. The Conservatives can credibly argue to English voters that a Labour government will be dependent on the SNP (Theresa May tried this argument in 2017, and it didn’t work because nobody believed she was at risk of losing). The SNP can credibly argue to Scottish voters that they do not have to vote Labour to get rid of a Conservative government in the UK.
Labour will be hoping that history does not repeat itself and that the future of Scotland will not be central to a UK-wide general election campaign. The problem is that if it makes it too obvious that this is what it is hoping for, Scottish voters will notice.