A Labour-SNP alliance could yet make Jeremy Corbyn PM and deliver Scottish independence

For the Corbynites, a second referendum is a price worth paying for securing power. 

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What is going on between Labour and the SNP? On one level the parties loathe each other – in Scotland, certainly, the relationship between the two is fraught, combative and zero-sum. At Westminster, however, things appear somewhat warmer.

This is not pleasing to the Holyrood-based Scottish Labour hierarchy. They are engaged in a fight for their lives against a relentless Nationalist machine that has dominated Scottish politics for more than a decade. They are battling to save the Union as well as their own seats, for relevance in the national debate, and to re-establish themselves in their traditional role as the choice of the Scottish left and centre left. Jeremy Corbyn’s swithering over Brexit has been disastrous for them in this heavily Remain-supporting part of the UK.

The surprise departure of Ruth Davidson is an opportunity to hit back at the Scottish Conservatives, who have supplanted Labour as the official opposition in Edinburgh. Davidson successfully positioned her party as the safe option for those who support the Union, and her liberal credentials and winning personality made it possible for a growing number of voters to hold their nose and vote Tory. There is no obvious successor who looks capable of performing the same gravity-defying trick.

And yet whenever a senior figure from the London leadership travels north they cause chaos, muddying the waters on whether there should be a second independence referendum, contradicting the Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard and leaving his (already weakened) authority in shreds. The Corbyn project, as advanced by Leonard, has anyway found little support in Scotland. What are voters supposed to make of it all?

This ambiguity can be explained quite simply. Corbyn and his team give the impression they have given up on a place that was once the heartland of their party. The days of Gordon Brown and Robin Cook and Alistair Darling are long gone, and their modern-day equivalents are a shadow of those giants, both in terms of intellect and charisma. Scotland is SNP-land now, and Corbyn is adjusting accordingly.

What he wants, of course, is for Nicola Sturgeon to put him in No 10. The SNP are pathologically anti-Tory and, it seems, are willing to play ball. In response to a tweet by a commentator suggesting the only way to secure an extension to the Article 50 process is to install “Corbyn or someone else” in Downing Street, Sturgeon wrote: "Agree with this. VONC [Vote of No Confidence], opposition unites around someone for sole purpose of securing an extension, and then immediate General Election. Nothing is risk free but leaving Johnson in post to force through no deal – or even a bad deal – seems like a terrible idea to me.

This comes with a price. The Nats will want an agreement from Corbyn that they can rerun the independence vote. This will deal a further blow to Labour in Scotland, but for the Corbynites it is a price worth paying. After all, they are hardly famed for their loyalty to the integrity of the UK. Amid the chaos of Brexit, there is every chance unhappy and sidelined Scots will vote Yes if given the choice again.

Labour needs Scotland to govern. It has long been thus, and the facts have not changed. If they can’t win the necessary seats for themselves, they will happily co-opt whoever does if it grants them control of the British state to begin their long march through the institutions.

This may be short-sighted, in that if Scotland departs, the rest of the UK will have something of an inbuilt Tory majority in future, but that would be the next battle. Images of Corbyn with Sturgeon in his jacket pocket, or indeed Sturgeon with Corbyn peeking from her own pocket, will matter less this time round, given what are likely to be the electoral priorities of voters.

So Corbyn may get his wish, and the Nats may get their referendum. After that, everything could look very different indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).