Getty
Show Hide image

Labour should stop indulging its Scottish party and broker a progressive alliance with the SNP

For as long as Scotland is part of the union, it is manifestly obvious that Labour in Westminster must talk to the SNP. 

Labour could not have played its cards worse when it comes to Scotland. Years of neglect and complacency were accelerated by the decision to line up with the Tories in the 2014 independence referendum. This was the final straw. The party suddenly and dramatically saw its vote fall off the cliff. Labour's working-class base had a new home to go to - the Scottish National Party. By pitching independence against social justice Labour has made a terrible mistake.

In one sense what the Scottish Labour Party (SLP) does is up to them. But a small and diminishing tail is wagging the UK Labour dog when it comes to talking to the SNP. It can’t go on.

The argument trotted out by Labour in Scotland for decades was that the only way to stop the Tories and get a more progressive society was by voting Labour. Thirteen years of New Labour tested the second half of that offer almost to destruction. Nowhere near enough progress was made and by 2010 the Tories were back – thus fatally undermining the first half of the promise.

Exactly what the difference is in principle between UK nationalism and Scottish nationalism is beyond me. How can support for one patriotism trump another? And independence for Scotland was never about cultural nationalism but democratic nationalism – the right and ability to control your country. When you’ve decided that its impossible to control your country, to make it socially just, while it is tied to whims of the Mail, Murdoch and now May – then the step to independence is a but a small one. Add in Brexit and the prospect of a return to Europe – then what exactly is not to like? For many in Scotland independence and social justice now go hand in hand.

Now on the wrong side of not just the SNP but a myriad of civil society groups who carry the torch of hope in their country, the SLP looks like a rump of angry people who demand that the UK Party must never speak to the SNP. No surrender indeed! Meanwhile they look set to lose every council they run in May - not least Glasgow – with the SNP itching to open the books up on decades of council contracts. At the moment the SLP is fighting it out with the Greens for who is fourth in the polls. Having painted themselves into a corner, they stand holding the brush – furious with everyone who looks on.

For as long as Scotland is part of the union, it is manifestly obvious that Labour in Westminster must talk to the SNP. To believe Labour can revive from its dire polling position, boundary changes, Brexit splits and ever hope to be in government given the loss of its Scottish base stretches the imagination to breaking point.

Now there are two arguments spat back when you suggest this. The first is that the SNP politicians aren’t progressive, so we shouldn’t deal with them. The evidence on that is flimsy to say the least. Of course the SNP can do more - and needs to - on issues of public service delivery. It is handy having the excuse of being tethered to London – "if only we were free".  But that can’t be a block on talks that can defeat the Tories – who the SNP have vowed never to work with. Anyway, Labour should be looking to strip away the SNP excuses for any failure – not reinforce them by denying the only route to taking the Tories out. A progressive alliance committed to proportional representation would, at a stroke, end the prospect of Tory majority rule. 

The second objection is that fear of the SNP frightens the English horses. We all remember the posters of Ed Miliband in the pocket of Alex Salmond at the last election. Yes it’s a problem – but it’s not going to go away whether we talk to the SNP or not. Last time Labour dealt with it by saying they would never go into government with the SNP. Well, that worked. Voters didn’t believe it and it shed even more votes north of the border.

Labour has no option but to talk to the SNP as part of the now much vaunted progressive alliance. Many in the SNP want to talk to Labour, and the other progressive parties, as SNP MPs Tommy Sheppard and Anne McLaughlin argue in a new pamphlet, The Progressive Alliance: why the SNP needs it.

The SLP should calm down and have a deep think about re-orientating itself – being principally a pro-social justice party that is ambivalent about independence.

If I had a vote in Scotland, I would vote to take a chance and determine my nation's fate, rather than have it settled by the Tory Prime Minister Theresa May in a context set by Rupert Murdoch, the Daily Mail and the demands of the City of London. I would hope for a return to Europe. Looking from the outside, I want Scotland to be as successfully left wing as it can possibly be. Whether in or out the UK, we need a story of success.

If the SLP don't want to wake up and smell the coffee, then fine. But why should they be allowed to take everyone down with them? Labour and the SNP should talk about devolution, proportional representation, fighting bad Brexit and everything that by working together could make peoples lives better. Anything less is indulgence.

Neal Lawson is Chair of Compass, who will be launching a nationwide campaign for the progressive alliance in June.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones. 

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

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

0800 7318496