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16 August 2022

Labour is still scared of Scottish voters

Whenever Starmer’s party tries to make the case for voting Labour instead of SNP, it manages to come across as helpless.

By Rory Scothorne

Add 20 minutes to your trip across town. Budget for pints at twice the price. Don’t go near the Royal Mile. Never look someone holding flyers in the eye. The Edinburgh Fringe is back, and the forgotten residents of Scotland’s capital are halfway through the most annoying month of the year, reviving old survival strategies after two years of pandemic-induced respite.

While it is an agitated time for locals, August in Auld Reekie offers something very different to politicians, for whom the month of festivals – the Book Festival and the Fringe in particular – presents an opportunity to show their more relaxed and human side. Nicola Sturgeon often pops up at book events to show off her cosy bibliophile persona, while Keir Starmer appeared on stage at Iain Dale’s month-long political chat show dressed in a polo shirt, jeans and Adidas trainers, calling Boris Johnson a “bullshitter” just to prove what a cool stepdad – sorry, I mean prime minister – he’s going to be.

Other Labour figures made an appearance at the festival too. Angela Rayner and Anas Sarwar both took the opportunity of the festival’s discursive, casual atmosphere to intervene in Scotland’s constitutional debate. When John McDonnell did this at the 2019 festival, he caused chaos inside the Scottish Labour Party by hinting to Dale that Labour would not block an independence referendum if the Scottish people voted for one. The Edinburgh South MP Ian Murray, then a backbencher, demanded an apology from McDonnell for this dangerously democratic sentiment. Murray is now Labour’s shadow Scottish secretary, and McDonnell is on the backbenches. Rayner and Sarwar made no such mistake.

Their remarks were revealing nonetheless. The Labour Party may have reasons to be optimistic – a sturdy polling lead in England, and a return to second place in Scotland – but the Scottish question remains a source of deep anxiety. While the cost of living and energy crises fall into Labour’s comfort zones of redistribution and state intervention, the question of independence has brought the party nothing but pain. The SNP has countered Labour’s growing momentum with plans for a new independence referendum next October, and Labour clearly suspects that there is still a chance this could derail things for them.

Rayner’s angst over the prospect inspired a clumsy appeal to Scottish left-wing instincts: “Leaving us to perpetual Conservatism at Westminster,” she argued, “is not very nice.” Supporters of independence can make quick work of arguments like this. So you agree, do you, that England is a Tory country, and that Scotland votes considerably to its left? That sounds like a pretty good reason to leave, not stay, given how much smaller Scotland’s population is than England’s. Most Labour governments in history have been elected with a majority of English seats as well as Scottish ones – something that only further illustrates Scotland’s general irrelevance to British politics.

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Sarwar offered a more sophisticated argument, albeit not a particularly inspiring one. “The only thing Nicola Sturgeon will achieve by trying to make the next general election a de facto referendum will be to ensure the Conservatives keep their seats,” he told Dale. He may have a point here: since 2015, independence has polarised Scots along party lines as well as constitutional ones, with the Conservatives benefiting from their status as the go-to unionist party. Yet Sarwar has partially succeeded in clawing back unionist votes from the Tories, leapfrogging Douglas Ross’s party into second place. There is also the question, however, of what the SNP do to Labour’s pitch in England. Will the Conservatives be able to frighten voters about a “coalition of chaos” between Starmer and Sturgeon, as they did for Ed Miliband in 2015? It’s not clear whether that tactic really worked in 2015 – the Tories benefited far more from Liberal Democrat collapse – and as Ben Walker has argued, Starmer is perceived as a stronger leader than Miliband was.

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In fact, both Rayner and Sarwar’s arguments betray a far more dangerous threat to Scottish Labour than anything the Tories can throw at them. If there’s one thing voters dislike, it’s cowardice, and it’s hard to avoid the tone of fear every time a Labour politician talks about Scotland. Whenever one tries to make the case for voting Labour instead of SNP, they manage to come across as helpless – somewhat farcically, it often boils down to “you shouldn’t vote SNP because it’ll make other people vote Tory”.

Arguments like this sound as if they’ve been pickled in punditry and soured by cynicism. Gone is the self-confident Labour Party that Scots once voted for in droves – a party deeply embedded in Scottish society, with which people could identify at an organic, familial level. That power produced a level of entitlement and smugness that was eventually humbled at the ballot box, but it is important to distinguish between disavowing that entitlement and running from a fight.

Sarwar’s admission in his chat with Dale that Labour “did take people for granted” and displayed “an arrogance in government” is still lacking corroborating evidence of genuine renewal. It requires proof, in policy and positioning, that Scottish Labour has regained some kind of natural connection with what Scottish people want.

This is the purpose of Labour’s still embryonic proposals for constitutional reform, which are intended to seize – or perhaps even produce out of thin air – the centre ground of a polarised constitutional debate. The emphasis should be on still. Several of Labour’s possible proposals – getting rid of the House of Lords, and further devolution towards full “Home Rule” – have a gestation period of a century and counting, handed all the way down, unrealised, from Keir Hardie to his latest namesake. Scottish Labour’s lack of self-confidence is of course partly the result of more than a decade of humiliating losses to the SNP. But it is also down to the fact that the party still has no substantial constitutional position of its own. So long as it’s stuck in the limbo of “we’re working on it”, all Labour’s leading figures can do is offer platitudes, warnings and excuses.

They are, nevertheless, working on it. Gordon Brown has been tasked by Starmer with putting forward a set of serious proposals for recasting the British state, so that the party finally has something distinctive and convincing to say about the future of the Union. But until we hear what those proposals are, Labour’s interventions on the constitution will sound tetchy, uncertain and afraid. It is up to Brown, Starmer, Sarwar and Rayner – Labour’s most prominent spokespeople on the question – to ensure that when they do make that position clear, it isn’t infected by the same lack of resolve.

[See also: Why Britain’s decline now resembles the fall of Rome]