The SNP’s initial response to the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader was confused. The party didn’t know whether to love-bomb him or carpet-bomb him. On Saturday 12 September, shortly after Corbyn’s victory was announced, Nicola Sturgeon tweeted: “If Lab can’t quickly show that they have credible chance of winning UK election, many will conclude that [independence is the] only alternative to Tory gov.” But the next morning, her deputy Stewart Hosie told Sky News that Corbyn had “voted with the SNP more than any other Labour MP” and indicated that he would be happy to work with Corbyn in the Commons.
In one respect, Corbyn – who arrives in Scotland today on a brief post-conference tour – poses a challenge to the SNP. For years, nationalists have traded on Labour’s rightward drift under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. During the independence referendum, the SNP even argued that separation was the only way to protect ‘real Labour values’ in Scotland. But Corbyn’s socialist credentials are stronger than those of Sturgeon. With a Bennite at Labour’s helm, Sturgeon can no longer legitimately claim that nationalism is the sole keeper of Scotland’s social democratic flame.
Beyond that, however, Corbyn will struggle north of the border. As analysis by Craig McAngus, a Research Fellow at Stirling University, shows, there is a heavy overlap between the Scottish left, the SNP and support for independence. Drawing on data from the British Election Study, McAngus highlights two important facts. The first is that Scots on the far-left of the ideological spectrum – individuals who, under different circumstances, might find Corbyn appealing – voted SNP in large numbers at the general election in May. And the second is that the these voters are, of all groups in Scottish society, the most dissatisfied with the result of the independence referendum.
McAngus’s research confirms something that has been apparent in Scottish politics for a while. Divisions over independence are not strictly constitutional: the fault-lines break along a left / right axis as well as a more conventional nationalist / unionist one. In other words, many Scottish socialists are now wedded to the idea of breaking-up Britain, and there is very little that Scotland’s shrinking tribe of leftwing unionists can do to change their minds.
This is obviously bad news for Jeremy Corbyn, who needs to show that he can ‘win Scotland back’ in order to give his long-term electoral strategy an early boost. But it is much worse news for Kezia Dugdale, the new Scottish Labour leader, who, while still at the very early stages of her career, has been handed a potentially career-ending task. All the momentum is flowing in the opposite direction. Not only is Sturgeon on course to maintain her majority in 2016, she is on course to increase it. Support for independence is slowly rising. Sturgeon’s approval ratings remain sky-high. At this rate, Labour will be lucky to return 30 of its current tally of 37 MSPs.
Corbyn’s internal critics will leap on Dugdale’s failure. If Jeremy can’t win among the anti-austerity Scots, how on earth is he going to win in the conservative south? But it’s worth remembering that it was Blairites, not Bennites, who presided over the decline of Scottish Labour and figures from the party’s right – notably Jim Murphy, Alistair Darling and Better Together director Blair McDougall – who bear responsibility for the miserable, self-destructive campaign Labour ran in defence of the Union last year. By contrast, Corbyn’s unionism is lukewarm. The Islington North MP barely featured in the referendum debate and – crucially – seems to acknowledge the right of the Scottish Parliament to determine Scotland’s constitutional future.
The SNP is currently trying to work-out how and when to stage a second independence referendum. Astute nationalists recognise that certain conditions will have to be met before any decision to hold another vote is made. The two overriding conditions are that support for independence registers above the 50 per cent mark for a sustained period and that Yes strategists develop a water-tight account of Scotland’s post-UK currency arrangements. Both are achievable within the next few years.
In the not so distant past, the transformation of Labour into a mass membership party of the socialist left might have made life difficult for the SNP. Not today. Now, Nicola Sturgeon can watch the rise of Corbynism from a relatively healthy distance, safe in the knowledge that it is a largely English phenomenon. Besides, Scotland has already had its ‘Corbyn moment’ – and Sturgeon was its principle beneficiary.