John McDonnell's referendum talk is a big gamble for Labour

McDonnell's referendum talk has irritated many of his Scottish colleagues – and highlights a strategic vulnerability for Labour. 

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In 2017, Labour gained just 9,860 votes in Scotland – just 700 more votes than it gained in Wes Streeting’s Ilford North constituency – but picked up six extra seats.

Why? There were two factors at work: the first was that almost half a million people who voted for the SNP in 2015 did not vote in 2017. Politicians in the SNP, Scottish Conservatives, Scottish Labour and Scottish Liberal Democrats all suggest the same set of factors, albeit in very different orders.

They are: first-time voters who voted for independence in 2014 and the SNP in 2015 did not keep up the habit; voters who voted to leave both the United Kingdom and the European Union sat on their hands; excitement around Jeremy Corbyn dissipated some of the SNP’s aura of distinct anti-political verve, and unease at another independence referendum even among supporters of a Yes vote.

The second, less complicated factor was tactical voting. One reason why morale in the SNP was pretty low after the 2017 election was that not only had Unionist voters done a very good job of voting tactically to remove first the party’s majority in Holyrood in 2016 and then again to deprive them of 21 Westminster constituencies in 2017, but that anyone hoping to repeat the exercise had a pretty good idea of which party they needed to vote for tactically in order to unseat most of the remaining 35 MPs.

And that’s part of why so many in the Scottish Labour Party are spitting blood over John McDonnell’s suggestion at the Edinburgh Literature Festival that a Labour government will not block another independence referendum – because they fear that it will not only shed votes in seats they hold, but limit their ability to pick up further tactical votes. Adding to the unease of several sitting Scottish Labour MPs that they are on the wrong side of Scottish public opinion over Brexit, it has only further worried Scottish Labour politicians.

It also undermines Richard Leonard, the party’s leader in Scotland, in that he has said the party will block a second referendum. It risks reinforcing one of the SNP’s preferred attack lines – that the Scottish Labour Party is a “branch office”, in the words of its former leader Johann Lamont, and by extension that Scotland, too, will only ever be a branch office in the Union as a whole – in advance of an election which could come as soon as the autumn.

And in England it may revive the Conservatives’ old attack line, which was particularly effective in allowing them to take so many seats of the Liberal Democrats in 2015, that a vote for Labour means a Labour-SNP coalition.

In some ways, McDonnell’s words are simply about the political reality. Barring some unforeseen event, no one seriously believes that the Labour Party is going to recover to anything like pre-2015 levels of parliamentary representation in Scotland, and it may even go backwards on 2017. Unless the party can make heroic strides forward in England it will need a deal with the SNP, which in turn means another referendum.

But that means that Labour is gambling that the political conditions of 2015 and 2017 no longer apply: that in Scotland there is no longer an electoral dividend to be had by being one of the explicitly anti-referendum parties, and that in England there is no longer an electoral penalty for being associated with a deal with the SNP.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.