Once again, Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s hapless leader, is in a muddle. He said at the weekend that he would not block another referendum in Scotland. After outcry from Scottish Labour, he appeared to backtrack and said voting for Scottish independence would lead to “turbo-charged austerity”.
Labour’s last remaining Scottish MP, Ian Murray, was scathing. In Saturday, he tweeted: “Often asked why I resigned from Shadow Cabinet. Ladies & Gentlemen, I give u Jeremy Corbyn. He’s destroying the party that soo many need.”
Often asked why I resigned from Shadow Cabinet. Ladies & Gentlemen I give u Jeremy Corbyn. He’s destroying the party that soo many need.
— Ian Murray (@IanMurrayMP) March 11, 2017
Murray added that his constituents were against another independence referendum. This chimes with a view I’ve often heard expressed among Scottish Labour politicians – that the axis of Scottish politics has shifted to the constitutional question and the party must have a firm stance if it is to survive.
So long as Labour retains its ambition to be a UK-wide party, it also makes sense to hold onto a unionist position that will not alienate English voters (targeted by the Tories in 2015 with dire warnings about Ed Miliband acting as an SNP puppet).
But most unionists also believe that a second independence referendum must be fought and won, like the last one, on economic issues. The oil price slump has in particular punctured a favourite nationalist argument.
They fear that the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon will instead rely on an emotional rallying call, that draws on cultural identity, and the feeling of being ignored by Westminster. The UK government’s determination to push on with a hard Brexit, despite Scotland’s Remain vote, means the call is already halfway there.
One unionist activist said to me last week: “Most people I’ve spoken to think Sturgeon wants to have a fight about getting to hold the referendum. The moment [Westminster] Parliament turns them down, they’ve got a grievance.”
This, therefore, is Corbyn’s bind. A leader who has to rely on an English MP for his shadow Scottish secretary must somehow walk the line between reassuring Labour unionists on both sides of the border, and at the same time avoid giving the Scottish government the chance to pounce.