Why Labour must once again become the party of the British Union

Labour’s ability to win general elections from opposition has long rested on its ability to take a high proportion of seats in Scotland and Wales. 

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The Labour leadership’s moment of truth over Brexit has become inseparable from the party’s relationship to the Union. John McDonnell dismayed Scottish Labour when he unilaterally rewrote Labour’s policy on Scottish independence during an interview at the Edinburgh Festival. Both sides in this fight appear to have a point. In saying Labour would not block a second Scottish independence referendum, McDonnell was responding to the electoral reality that there is little prospect of Labour commanding a working parliamentary majority without co-operation with the SNP, for which there will be conditions. But Labour cannot defend the Union, or attack no-deal Brexit for threatening the Union, while working with those who wish to end it.

The fury over McDonnell’s words demonstrates just how inexorable Labour’s long-term strategic predicaments are. Scottish Labour’s collapse after 2011, when the SNP for the first time won a majority in the Scottish Parliament, has made Labour’s old pathways to power in Westminster extremely difficult. Labour’s ability to win general elections from opposition has long rested on its ability to take a high proportion of seats in Scotland and Wales and then compete reasonably effectively in England.

Of the four times since the Second World War that Labour has taken power from the Conservatives – 1945, 1964, February 1974 and 1997 – only in the 1945 and 1997 landslides did it win a majority of English seats. Notably, Labour lost in 1992 because, having squeezed the Conservatives to just 17 Scottish and Welsh seats, it was trounced in England. Without Scotland, Labour’s task in England is formidable, and, as the 2015 general election demonstrated, any suggestion that the party will ally with the SNP at Westminster only concedes further English ground to the Conservatives.

Against this electoral calculus, Labour’s shift to the left after the 2015 defeat under Ed Miliband was predictable. With an emboldened SNP, Labour could not carry on as it had done in either England or Scotland. Jeremy Corbyn’s initial approach to the problem looks in retrospect like an attempt to mobilise a cross-national coalition of debtors, renters and those who lost from the coalition government’s cuts. This strategy probably never constituted a path to electoral victory. But when a general election came early, Brexit inadvertently gave this coalition new life. Brexit initially hurt the SNP because it constructs a choice between the UK and European single markets. It allowed former Labour voters who had deserted the party for Ukip in 2015 to return. And it ensured that unreconciled Remainers, wishing to constrain the Conservatives’ pursuit of Brexit, charged towards the party most likely to prevent a larger Conservative majority.

But any chance Labour had of maintaining its 2017 coalition depended on Theresa May taking Britain out of the European Union with a withdrawal agreement without the Labour leadership having to dirty its hands to help her. In the absence of an orderly Conservative-made Brexit, Labour must fight the Liberal Democrats and the Brexit Party for diametrically opposed parts of its 2017 coalition, and defend the seats it won from tactical Unionist voters in Scotland against a Lib Dem resurgence.

Having inadvertently helped in 2017, Brexit now exposes deep fractures in the class coalition that has shaped Labour’s entire history. Of course, this tension between prioritising working- or middle-class possible Labour voters is nothing new. Labour has long debated what it means to be the party created to represent the interests of labour in a changing economy and society. Neither are class divisions unique to Labour. The Conservative Party is also a class coalition. Thanks to Brexit it also faces hard strategic choices defined by the historical tension in a party born of the conflict between Peel’s Liberal Toryism and Disraeli’s One Nation conservatism.

But the Conservatives’ recklessness towards no deal has a recognisable history. Minus Bonar Law’s fatal promise to Ulster, Boris Johnson’s Conservatives are pursuing much the same commitments the Conservative leadership did in the pre-First World War constitutional crisis: England’s political position in the Union, and the idea that parliament should ultimately be constrained by the electorate. Labour’s gamble in trying to stop Brexit while accommodating the SNP looks, by contrast, a greater disjuncture from the party’s past.

Labour’s version of Unionism actually requires it to win a sizeable number of votes across Britain. In Wales, Labour cannot compete while it repudiates the part of its historical tradition that Labour Leave voters represent. In Scotland and England, Labour cannot maintain its Unionist credentials and court the SNP. In England, it cannot depend on the Conservatives and the Brexit Party dividing the Leave vote in the English north and the Midlands when it has already sacrificed some Remain voters to the Lib Dems.

If Conservative recklessness and an obdurate Brexit Party nonetheless sees Labour take office with the SNP’s support, the acute strategic predicament will remain. Since the EU is never going to be transformed by the endeavours of a British government, Labour would be left with a Remain and Reform position that cannot possibly translate into a credible governing strategy. Inevitably, a debate about the EU would again divide the party. Meanwhile, the SNP will demand a referendum that the nationalists will think, inside the EU, can be won. If it is, Labour will have to do without any Scottish seats.

There looks no way forward except back into the past. The Labour Party has to be the party of the British Union, and it has to aspire to be the party that does not subordinate all other considerations to Brexit, even as making choices on Brexit has proved inescapable.

Helen Thompson is professor of political economy at Cambridge University and a regular on the Talking Politics podcast. 

This article appears in the 16 August 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The age of conspiracy