A split in the pro-independence camp?

If the Yes campaign is to be successful, the SNP cannot afford to alienate smaller parties like the

Readers in other parts of the UK may not be all that familiar with Patrick Harvie, co-convener of the Scottish Green Party (SGP). But north of the border, the Glasgow MSP has been a mainstay of the devolved political landscape for the best part of a decade, as well as one of its most consistently radical and provocative figures. So the significance of his latest intervention in the independence debate should not be underestimated.

Speaking to Holyrood magazine last week, Harvie hinted that he might be willing to abandon his traditional support for full Scottish self-government in favour of an enhanced devolutionary settlement: "(Independence) is not a point of principle for me", he said. "It's purely pragmatic...(and we) may want to refine the policy a bit - particularly if there's a third option (on the ballot paper)". This position was confirmed by an SGP spokesperson, who told the New Statesman that the Greens' constitutional stance was "not set in stone".

Despite the SGP's marginal status in Scottish politics - they have just two MSPs out of 129 - this could be an important development. The unionists' referendum strategy is to cast the SNP as a minority pressure group out of touch with mainstream, pro-devolution opinion. If effective, this will compound the suspicion that the nationalist surge is a temporary aberration at odds with Scots' fundamental desire to remain part of the United Kingdom. One way the SNP can avoid this is to form a united front with other, smaller independence-minded parties and organisations, of which the Greens are by far the most prominent. Failure to build such a coalition could just tip the balance of odds against a Yes vote in 2014.
 
But unionists shouldn't get excited quite yet. It's no secret that Harvie feels Alex Salmond is shutting non-SNP pro-independence voices out of the Yes campaign, so it's possible his comments were really a veiled bid for greater involvement. They may also be a reflection of the Greens growing antipathy towards the SNP as the party of devolved government. Over the last five years, the SGP has become more and more critical of the nationalists. Much of their hostility is a response to what they see as the SNP's tendency to side with the interests of big business over those of the environment, with the first minister's vocal support for Donald Trump's golf course development in Aberdeenshire and the construction of a second road bridge over the Firth of Forth being the main ca! ses in point.

Yet despite these policy disagreements and the general bad feeling between the two parties, it remains probable that the Greens will still campaign for outright independence over the next two and half years. One of the major prizes of full self-government would be the power to force the removal of the British nuclear deterrent from its current home on the Clyde - a longstanding ambition of the Scottish environmental lobby. This would not be possible under maximum devolution or federalism, both of which would see defence and foreign affairs remain under Westminster control.

The fact, though, that they are even threatening such a dramatic shift in position reveals just how strained the SNP's relations with other parties in Scotland are, including those with whom it should be on good terms. Given most polls show a majority of Scots continue to oppose the break-up of Britain, the nationalists simply can't afford to further alienate any of their would-be allies.

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

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.