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14 January 2020

What is the one issue that all the Labour leadership candidates fear?

No wonder Ian Murray is standing to be deputy leader — Scotland has become a major fault line in the Labour Party.

By George Grylls

And then there were five. Clive Lewis yesterday bowed out of the Labour leadership race, having given his two cents on open borders, a referendum on the monarchy, co-operation with the Greens and, most controversially, Scotland.

Last week in a piece for the National, Lewis turned to the hazardous subject of Scottish independence, stating that Labour should not obstruct a second independence referendum if the Scottish wing of the party is in favour of holding one. IndyRef2 has become something of a proxy issue for wider divisions in the party. Figures from the left such as Lewis and Rebbeca Long-Bailey have taken their cue from John McDonnell’s intervention at the Edinburgh Fringe last year when the shadow chancellor stated that the Scottish parliament should ultimately decide on whether to hold another referendum. Meanwhile Jess Phillips — the bête noire of the Labour left — has been more explicitly unionist.

The leadership contenders initially tip-toed around the auld question. According to one Labour MP, all the candidates were “at their most uncomfortable” at the PLP hustings last week when Ian Murray, the party’s last remaining Scottish MP, asked a question on Scotland. Murray, the MP for Edinburgh South, is running for the Labour deputy leadership, and his pitch is designed to remind the party of its dire predicament north of the border.

Jess Phillips, the candidate nominated by Murray, yesterday sought to demonstrate her unionist credentials, criticising Long-Bailey on Twitter for adopting a similar stance to Lewis on a second referendum, before denouncing Nicola Sturgeon over the SNP’s abject failings on education and health”. Phillips is visiting Glasgow today just to ram home the point.

Of the other candidates, Lisa Nandy has promoted an implicitly unionist narrative, but has skilfully avoided directly addressing the independence question. At a campaign event yesterday she talked of connecting “Dagenham to Fulham, Aberdeen to Glasgow, and Cardiff to Wrexham”. The problems, Nandy implies, are the same across the country. Devolution is her answer, not independence.

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The candidate with the most delicate task is frontrunner Keir Starmer. In an interview with LabourList at his campaign launch, Starmer stayed close to the party’s ambiguous message of recent years — some noises on further devolution, some pro-Union noises, and plenty of “I’m an Englishman and I really don’t want to get involved in Scotland” noises.

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None of the candidates for the leadership — all of whom are English — relish the question of Scottish independence. It carries more risk than reward — Labour’s membership in Scotland has declined to just 20,000. But can the candidates really bury such a big issue for two and a half months?