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4 August 2021

Why Keir Starmer’s recent announcements are politically important for Labour

The Labour leader has made two big announcements in an interview with the Daily Record.

By Stephen Bush

What better place to visit in August than Scotland, where the weather is less suffocatingly hot and the skies are pretty? (I’m heading that way for some R&R later this month myself.) Also visiting Scotland, albeit for work rather than for pleasure, is the Prime Minister and his opposite number Keir Starmer.

Starmer has made two big announcements in an interview with the Daily Record: the first is reaffirming Labour’s commitment to deliver the bulk of the net zero target by 2030, and the second is to rule out any deals, coalitions or pacts with the SNP. The two announcements have both an incredibly serious policy rationale and are important for Labour politically, too.

The most important global challenge faced by all governments is reducing their emissions and adapting to greater extremes of climate in the 21st century. The crude electoral question, however, is whether or not Labour can successfully reduce the Green vote come election time. Labour did it in 2017 and 2019, and in the by-elections in Hartlepool and Batley and Spen. If they can reduce the Greens down to a rump outside of the Green party’s own target seats, then suddenly Labour’s present polling position looks better than it seems: and the Conservative majority more fragile than it is commonly assumed at Westminster.

[See also: The Greens are on the march. Who should be afraid?]

Having a big and serious climate target isn’t the only thing Labour will have to do to squeeze the Green vote: but it certainly helps. As for the SNP pledge: one of the biggest domestic questions over the next few decades will be whether the UK survives in its current form, or not. The difficulty for Labour is that the Conservatives may well be able to avoid having to hold an independence referendum on their watch. Which means that, come the next election, the Conservatives would be able to campaign with the warning that a vote for Labour in England means a government with no alternative but to trade an independence referendum for power.

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Avoiding that argument is why Starmer has followed in the footsteps of Jeremy Corbyn and Ed Miliband in ruling out a deal with the SNP. The problem is that it isn’t really in Labour’s gift: I don’t think anyone will be convinced that, in the event of a hung parliament in which Labour can choose opposition or to enter Downing Street with the support of the SNP, Labour will instead go for another term in the wilderness. 

And that speaks to the biggest challenge facing every Labour leader since 2014: to be able to plausibly reject a deal with the SNP they have to do much better at winning votes in England, but the party struggles to win votes in England as long as they look to be reliant on the SNP.