Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
16 January 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 2:38pm

Labour must learn the secrets of the Scottish Conservatives

 A Faustian pact with the SNP is not the short cut back to power some in Labour think it is. 

By Henry Hill

If Labour wants to recover as a political force, in Scotland or nationally, it must do the hard work of selling voters on a British, progressive party. But some in both the SNP and Labour sense a shortcut – a “progressive alliance”

Progressives might be naturally cautious about taking advice from a Conservative, but anybody covering Scottish politics for a Tory website is very familiar with life in the doldrums. And there are a few things to be learnt down there. 

First, as Scottish Labour members will tell anyone who listens, the SNP talk an excellent progressive game, particularly on any area where they’re in opposition. But in government the Nationalists have simply navigated by two stars – differentiating Scotland from England to the greatest extent possible, and irritating as few people as possible, all in order to engineer support for independence.

Independence itself would, according to nearly all objective assessments, involve a sharp adjustment in Scottish public expenditure, and painful consequences for those who depend on it. Yet this does little to dent the SNP’s enthusiasm. All their political reasoning is worked out backwards from that overriding goal.

There is no reason to believe that the nationalists’ priorities at Westminster would be any different. Joining the SNP in “progressive alliance” would be a poison pill for Labour. 

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

For the larger party would be in a double bind. Govern cautiously, respecting the relative weakness of the left in England and Wales, and the SNP will paint its coalition partner as “Red Tory”, taking credit for whatever was popular in Scotland and disowning the rest. 

But drive through a more radical programme with SNP votes (presumably after dismantling “English Votes for English Laws”), and risk permanently alienating huge sections of the electorate south of the border. Those Miliband-in-Salmond’s-pocket pictures would be just the start.

Scottish Labour is familiar with the reality of the SNP in power. But that’s not to say it isn’t making its own mistakes. Too often, it tries to strike the same sort of bargain with small-n nationalism.

Content from our partners
Why modelling matters: its role in future healthcare challenges
Helping children be safer, smarter, happier internet explorers
Power to the people

Constitutionally-focused politics isn’t kind to social democrats, as Irish Labour will tell you. So it’s clear why Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale would wish to believe that there is a split-the-difference constitutional position which would, as this article has it, offer “an escape from the black and white world of referendum politics”.

But incantations about “federalism” and “home rule” aren’t going to save Labour. They’re an attempt to appeal to everybody, and are neither intellectually nor politically adequate to the challenge facing the party.

Holyrood is already one of the most powerful sub-state legislatures on earth, so “federalism” is at this point mostly a question of how England is run. If “more powers” were actually going to stop nationalism, we’d have seen some evidence of it during the last 20 years.

And as political tactics go, it won’t woo back voters whom the SNP have persuaded that independence is a progressive cause, but it will alienate voters who care about the union.

Here, Scottish Labour should learn from the Conservatives. The leader in Scotland, Ruth Davidson, realised that voters were always going to have better non-Conservative options on the ballot paper than the Tories, so there was no way back that didn’t involve selling voters on Conservatism. A new Conservatism in important respects, but nonetheless a British, centre-right party.

Labour too must recognise that they are never going to be a more appealing option than the SNP to voters who believe separatism is a good idea. Instead, they must sell voters on what they are: a British, centre-left party. The progressive case for Britain, and against independence, is there to be made.

Labour needs to sell the United Kingdom, and the Britishness underlying it, as a progressive force. As long as left-wing voters remain attached to independence and the SNP, despite all the implications, Labour will be marginalised and the union in danger. 

Henry Hill is assistant editor of ConservativeHome, and has written their Red, White, and Blue column on Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland since 2013. Follow him @HCH_Hill.