The Fabian Society started 2017 with a wake-up call for Labour. Its research found the party has no chance of winning a general election on its own. Instead, the Fabian Society urged Labour to concentrate on a progressive alliance that could win enough seats to force out the Tories.
The call met with a fairly predictable response in Scotland, where Labour and SNP hatred runs deep. The animosity is more akin to the historic enmity between the two moderately conservative Irish parties Fianna Fail and Fine Gael than anything that exists south of the Border.
The fact the Scottish parties are fighting over the same electorate further fuels the enmity. It is striking that voters in Scotland tend to fall into SNP/Labour and Conservative/Lib Dem polling groups without entering into the animosity felt by the party activists. Rather than considering the overlaps on most policy issues, activists have instead intensified the debate over the one where there is a big difference – the constitution.
While the constitutional question has always existed, the independence referendum made it a priority. Ironically, the most virulent in the nationalist community are often former Labour members. For those who hoped for change through independence, the defeat was sore, not least because of Labour’s collusion with the Tories.
For the No side, a victory in the referendum was followed by a beating by the SNP in many areas they viewed as their political territory. Many of the strongest supporters of independence were dyed-in-the-wool Labour voters. Labour paid a heavy price for its positioning, but the wounded leadership has responded by increasing its level of antipathy to the SNP.
As the battle on the centre left has escalated, the Tories have marched steadily on. They’ve usurped the Labour party as the opposition in Holyrood. However, SNP cannot rest on its laurels. It too will suffer as the rejuvenated Tories win back historic seats. That started in the Holyrood elections last year and will continue in the council elections of 2017.
The Tories’ current success is limited. Even in 2016, the party enjoyed a lower vote share than that enjoyed by John Major in 1992, and given the longstanding antipathy to the party in Scotland, there is likely to be a natural ceiling on its vote share. A Tory surge will, however, give greater legitimacy to Tory policies in Westminster, and further harm the interests of the poor and vulnerable that both the SNP and Labour wish to protect. For this reason alone, they must heed the calls for a progressive alliance and agree a truce in this centre-left civil war.
Moreover, the world has changed north of the Border, as elsewhere, post Brexit. Though the prospect of a second independence referendum has been floated by the First Minister, the complexities have increased. Factors that were critical in the first referendum, currency and the economy, seem even less favourable to the independence movement at present. New issues such as a hard border have also arisen.
The Brexit vote has also created new fractures. The 62 per cent Remain vote saw many No voters from middle-class areas rally to the Scottish government’s call. Equally, though, voters in many peripheral and disadvantaged areas in Scotland acted no differently to those south of the border. Many of the strongest Yes areas also saw significant Leave votes predicated on voters’ belief that immigration and the EU were to blame for their fate.
Meanwhile, the most incompetent UK government in living memory is allowed to sail steadily on, thanks to electoral problems looming for both SNP and Labour. As the Fabian analysis has shown, the latter party cannot win without a progressive alliance. Votes from the SNP block will be needed. It’s hard to see anything other than continued SNP dominance north of the border, though the challenge will be from the Tories.
In Ireland, electoral necessity saw the historic civil war parties work together, albeit contest each other in elections. In Scotland, the time has come to do likewise. Remove the Tories, and alleviate the suffering for ordinary people. Then have either a multi-option referendum or enshrine the right of the Scottish Parliament to call one on independence. There is more that unites SNP and Labour than divides. Indulging in hatred simply harms both parties’ chances of removing the Tories – on both sides of the border.