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13 November 2019

Would Jeremy Corbyn really deny the SNP a new independence referendum?

In Glasgow this morning, the Labour leader ruled out granting permission for a new vote in the next parliament. But there's a catch.

By Patrick Maguire

Would a Corbyn government hold two referendums in its first year in office? That’s what Boris Johnson would like voters to believe. But, while Labour’s commitment to a fresh vote on Brexit in the first six months of 2020 is now set in stone, its precise position on a new Scottish independence referendum has been rather less clear. 

Until today, that is. On a visit to Glasgow this morning, Jeremy Corbyn ruled out calling a second IndyRef in the first five years of a Labour government. “No referendum in the first term for a Labour government because I think we need to concentrate completely in investment across Scotland,” he told the Press Association.

Though the Labour leader has long said that he would not allow another independence referendum in the “formative years” of his administration, he has never gone so far as to define that timeframe as an entire parliament. It is a clear attempt to shore up support among unionist voters – after all, in all of the seven seats Labour is defending in Scotland, the next biggest party is the SNP. 

But any solution to that electoral headache – and, as one Scottish Tory MP notes, today’s statement is “far too little, far too late” for many pro-UK voters – risks creating a problem for Labour at Westminster. Should it be the largest party in a hung parliament, its likeliest route to a majority will run through SNP MPs. Last week, Nicola Sturgeon named her price for supporting Corbyn: an independence referendum in 2020. Whether you take Corbyn’s latest statement or the fuzzier “formative years” standard as gospel, Labour is clearly unwilling to meet it. 

The best Sturgeon can hope for is a poll in 2021: sources close to Corbyn say his stance is liable to change if the SNP win a majority at the next Holyrood election, scheduled for that May. Having already said she would never put Boris Johnson into office in the event of a hung parliament, it may well be that she must settle for it. 

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[See also: Will Jeremy Corbyn agree to step aside in Islington North?]

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