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5 June 2020updated 26 Jul 2021 4:13am

Has Scottish Labour finally taken a position on independence?

A coherent policy on the Union could be a first step towards a revival of the party's fortunes.

By Chris Deerin

Once more unto the breach, dear friends. Or, to put it another way: Scottish Labour has adopted what feels like its 3,432nd position on independence in the past decade.

Nothing has revealed Labour’s struggle for relevance north of the border as much as its hokey-cokey on independence. It has gone from a firm “No” in 2014 to a half-hearted “we’d rather not, but maybe”, to “if people vote for it, we can’t deny them the choice”, then back to a firm “No”.

Policy was hijacked by the Corbynites during the last general election, who made it clear that a second referendum would be a price worth paying for the SNP to support a Labour government at Westminster. Through all of this, there has been an ongoing wrestling match between the party’s soft nationalists and its hardline unionists. Voters have, quite reasonably, looked elsewhere for clarity.

This isn’t the only cause of Scottish Labour’s electoral travails — Corbynism was a disaster in Scotland, and the party remains in third place behind the Scottish Tories — but it’s a significant factor. The SNP has the pro-indy vote stitched up (with a few people backing the equally pro-indy Greens), and under Ruth Davidson the Conservatives offered a more direct and unequivocal pitch to Unionists.

Now Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard is having another go at hostile terrain. In an article for the Daily Record, he argues that there is “no appetite” for the creation of a separate Scottish state. Instead, Labour will support a constitutional convention to modernise the UK’s institutions, including the abolition of the House of Lords, and the further devolution of powers. As the party that delivered the Scottish Parliament, “we remain fully committed to continuing this unfinished revolution of democratic reform and decentralisation within the United Kingdom,” says Leonard.

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The assertion that there is “no appetite” for independence is obviously untrue. But even Leonard’s critics in Scottish Labour – and there are more than a few – have some sympathy with the constitutional bind he finds himself in.

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“Labour’s in a pretty impossible position,” says a senior party source. “Since 2014 we’ve had a change in the SNP that has produced a more consensual, social democratic leadership. They hoover up that 45 per cent of Yes voters, and that keeps them in power.”

Leonard is attempting to create a “third position” on Scotland’s future – no to independence, no to stubborn, unshifting unionism, yes to a living, breathing devolution settlement that adapts to fit the times. “There are obviously two dominant positions,” says a party insider. “Our dithering of the past few years has been a disaster. Our position might not be the most popular of the three, but if we articulate a positive case for devolution that is clear and rational, that is about the principle rather than just the details, that can be fairly defended, and that shows flexibility, then the public might let us talk about the things that matter to most of them, such as the economy and education.”

Labour politicians believe the Covid-19 crisis has remade the case for the Union (as I discussed here), in that it has shown the benefits of the UK in terms of economic power and international heft, but it has also allowed devolved governments to do what they’re good at. “The UK government has the money, and the power to deal with, say, the global vaccine situation,” says a Labour source, “but the Scottish government has proved better at managing public health.”

If this is successful devolution in practice, then the party feels able to defend both the principle and practice. They will then have the space to develop credible policies in the key areas that could persuade voters to listen, and perhaps give them a second chance.

The problem here, argue modernisers, is Leonard himself. Jeremy Corbyn may be gone, but Leonard hangs on – a somewhat pale imitation, but a politician who is just as obsessed with romantic notions of the working class, trade unions and the Labour “family”. Could the ascendancy of Keir Starmer, and the recent election of respected centrist MSP Jackie Baillie as Leonard’s deputy, force him to change course?

“My impression is he’s digging in,” says one internal critic, citing recent statements Leonard has made alongside the STUC on left-wing industrial strategy. “They can muck around on 15 per vent of the vote, with a state-run economy and no reform of public services, but it won’t get them back in the game. We should be leading the debate right now on how to get the economy back on track after lockdown, but we’re simply not at the races. Jackie and Ian Murray (the new shadow Scottish Secretary, a fierce critic of Corbyn, and now Labour’s only Scottish MP) have fire in their belly and can motivate people, but it remains to be seen if they can influence Leonard in any significant way.”

It is not unthinkable that Scottish Labour could mount a comeback. The SNP and Nicola Sturgeon still sit high in the polls, but the final reckoning over Covid-19 is yet to be had; the Alex Salmond affair lies ahead; a second referendum seems off the cards in the near future, and there is a growing rebellion in the ranks at the First Minister’s cautious approach to a securing independence. Jackson Carlaw, the new leader of the Scottish Tories, remains an unknown quantity but lacks Ruth Davidson’s broad appeal, and the electorate seems uncomfortable with the choices and behaviour of Boris Johnson’s regime.

Sorting the mess that is Labour’s constitutional policy is a necessary but not sufficient step. If the party can stick to the new line, it can then focus on the hard work of looking like a potential devolved government. Unfortunately, it’s not clear that it has either the policies or the people to complete the deal.