Labour's revival could sink Scottish independence

When it comes to the Union, Miliband matters.

There has been almost as much speculation about the timing of the Scottish National Party’s (SNP) referendum on independence as there has been about the outcome of the referendum itself. One common interpretation is that the autumn 2014 date was chosen because it roughly coincides with the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn. Ask any SNP politician and they’ll tell you this is nonsense. The real explanation is that SNP strategists believe Scottish voters will become increasingly susceptible to the appeal of complete political separation from England the closer they get to a Westminster election the Conservatives look likely to win.

The problem for Alex Salmond and his allies in the Yes Scotland campaign is that the odds on David Cameron achieving a second term seem to be steadily diminishing. When the SNP leader revealed his referendum timetable back in January, the Tories enjoyed a lead of five per cent over Labour. The slump in Labour support was precipitated by a string of weak performances by Ed Miliband at Prime Minister’s Questions and a damaging spat with the unions over cuts. Today, following George Osborne’s disastrous budget and the British economy’s slide back into recession, the situation is transformed, with Labour leading the Conservatives by as much as 13 points. What’s more, the confidence of the British public in the Conservatives to manage the economy effectively - an important indicator of any government’s success - has been shattered.

All this bodes well for Labour, but it should be equally encouraging for supporters of the Union: a sustained revival in the party's electoral prospects could seriously damage nationalist hopes of securing independence in two years time. Scottish political culture is to a large extent defined by its anti-Conservatism. Scots see Labour as the most reliable safeguard against the Tories at Westminster and, these days, the SNP as the most effective advocates of Scottish interests from an Edinburgh base. This translates into the constitutional sphere as well. The decisive factor in the reversal of Scottish attitudes towards devolution between 1979 (when just over 50 per cent of voters backed a Scottish legislative assembly) and 1997 (when nearly 75 per cent did) was 18 years of Tory government. This means that if the prospect of an extended period of Tory rule continues to deteriorate over the next 18 months or so, the nationalist argument that independence is a necessary bulwark against the English right could begin to lose its force.

Yet, in terms of the bare politics of the referendum campaign, Labour continues to make bad tactical and strategic errors. Two weeks ago, Miliband - displaying a remarkable disregard for Scottish political sensibilities - said he was “sure” Tony Blair would play a significant role in the fight to save the Union. But nothing would delight nationalists more: by 2007 Blair’s unpopularity in Scotland was so great it helped propel the SNP to power at Holyrood for the first time. The continued support of both the UK and Scottish Labour leaderships for Britain’s Clyde-based nuclear deterrent hands the SNP another campaigning advantage. Most Scots oppose the renewal of Trident, and Alex Salmond will be sure to place his pledge to remove it from Scottish waters at the centre of his case for secession. Finally, and above all, Labour’s refusal to articulate a radical devolutionary alternative to independence leaves the nationalists free to dictate the terms and conditions of the constitutional debate. Scots will be more likely to vote to leave the UK if the unionist parties fail to explain how they want the next phase of devolution to develop.

The challenge for Miliband is to incorporate his party's defence of the Union into a wider narrative of Labour renewal. Recent successes notwithstanding, the party still seems uncertain about how it should reconstruct its identity in the post-Blair era. A commitment to fully modernise the British constitutional system, including fiscal autonomy for Scotland and significant new powers for the Welsh assembly, might be a good way to start. Nevertheless, some members of Scottish Labour may be left wondering why they should look to Miliband and the UK leadership, rather than to Johann Lamont and her team, to secure Scotland’s future as part of the UK. The reality is that for as long Scottish Labour remains a subordinate and attenuated version of British Labour, it will always be a secondary player in the battle against the SNP.

A sustained revival in Labour's fortunes could seriously damage the independence campaign. Photograph: Getty Images.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images
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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage