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Why is Scottish Labour celebrating? It missed a trick – and perhaps a ton of votes, too

The relentless focus on stopping the Nationalists has done the party no favours – Scottish voters aren’t as tribal as people seem to think.

In the run-up to the general election, exasperation on the Scottish left was clear. “I really want to vote for Corbyn”, read many tweets and comments, “but Scottish Labour are such a mess”.

A resident of Edinburgh North and Leith, where the SNP-Labour race was fairly close, shared a photograph of the Labour candidate’s campaign leaflet. The entire first page was about independence. Nicola Sturgeon was named twice in the opening paragraphs. Every tired phrase was there – “another divisive referendum”, “get on with the day job”, “a nation deeply divided”. 

Giant billboards in key locations featured a sinister-looking Sturgeon, and urged Tory voters to “beat the SNP’” by voting Labour. This campaign embodied precisely the “divisive”, tribal politics that Scottish Labour keep trying to condemn. It verged on the surreal – particularly given what was happening south of the border. 

Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale’s U-turn on Corbyn was late and fairly unconvincing. Yet that could have been overcome if the party had really put its weight behind the Corbyn manifesto, given voice to its more left-wing MSPs like Neil Findlay, and embraced the infectious excitement around Labour generally. Instead, the leadership in Scotland seems blinded by its centrist politics and a hatred of nationalism (Scottish nationalism, that is – British is fine). 

This kind of messaging treated Scottish voters like a bunch of tribal hardliners – but 30 per cent of Labour voters supported independence in 2014. Even with the relentless anti-independence rhetoric, 25 per cent of the party’s vote in this election came from Yes voters. Could it have been higher? 

Those involved in the left-wing, grassroots aspect of the 2014 referendum campaign – particularly the cross-party Radical Independence Campaign – see similarities between the groundswell of political engagement they experienced then, and what is happening with the Corbyn movement now. For many Yes voters, independence was a means to an end. If a return to “real” Labour at a UK level offers those same ends, many would vote for Labour. You can still be pro-independence while wanting UK politics and society to benefit from a progressive government. It shouldn’t be such a surprise that people are capable of nuanced positions. 

Of course, significant numbers of people in Scotland are anti-independence and perhaps are content to hear Labour bang on about the “Nats”. And another large chunk are resolutely pro-independence, and turn towards the SNP.

But ignoring the broad left vote by failing to fully back Corbyn, whilst simultaneously driving away left-wing Yes voters with angry rhetoric, does not seem to be a winning strategy. Ideological difference has returned to politics, and with voters tiring of the SNP’s boring managerialism, Dugdale’s party could have capitalised hugely. Rather than the “stunning victory” she announced, it looked like a massive missed opportunity – particularly given the number of seats that were tantalisingly close. 

For the first time in decades, the Scottish electorate may actually influence the outcome of Westminster elections again. If another vote is on the horizon, much could depend on whether Scottish Labour can up its game. 

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Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”