Scottish Labour’s Dilemma
Wednesday’s Supreme Court decision generated a wave of commentary regarding the strategic impasse of the independence movement and Nicola Sturgeon’s future as leader of the SNP. (You can read my pessimistic take, for the New Left Review’s Sidecar blog, here.) But amidst the crashing constitutional debris, one salient political fact seems to have been overlooked: Scottish Labour is, and remains, fucked.
Why? Because for the past few years the polarization of Scottish politics along hard Yes vs No lines has principally benefited the SNP and the Tories. Because in a country obsessed with constitutional politics the party lacks a clear constitutional identity. And because, despite the media’s fawning, Anas Sarwar is a weak leader who has learned nothing from the bruising experiences of 2014.
This analysis might sound counter-intuitive given current polling trends. Recent surveys put Scottish Labour ahead of the Tories on both the Holyrood and Westminster ballots. The margins aren’t that small, either. In October, YouGov gave Labour a 19-point advantage over the Conservatives in Scotland, with the next UK general election scheduled for 2024.
Not losing to the Tory Party – whose leader Douglas Ross can barely marshal majority support among his own base – should not constitute success for Scottish Labour, however. Under Sarwar, the party has styled itself, and wants to be seen, as a credible governing alternative to the SNP. But in order for that to happen, Labour needs to shift the public’s attention away from the constitution and onto prosaic domestic concerns like education and the NHS.
Last week’s ruling has made that task harder. Between now and the next British election, all anyone is going to talk about in Scotland is ‘plebiscitary thresholds’, ‘involuntary unions’, and ‘democratic mandates.’ This dynamic gives the SNP a coherent message going into 2024: vote for us if you want independence. It gives the Tories one, too: vote for us if you don’t. Labour, on the other hand, is stuck. Sarwar is an anti-independence politician who appeals to middle-class unionists but has conspicuously failed to cleave Yes voters away from the SNP – voters he is going to need if he wants to become first minister.
This fact was underlined by a piece of research published last month by Savanta ComRes, which showed that the recent rise in Scottish Labour’s popularity was directly dependent on the shrinking of the Tories’ vote share. The figures – which put the SNP on 46 per cent of the Westminster vote, Labour on 30 per cent, and the Tories on course for a total Caledonian wipe-out – illustrated how Labour was still “fishing in the unionist vote pool” rather than gaining from the nationalists, ComRes research director Chris Hopkins wrote. “And even with 30 per cent of the vote, without taking votes from the SNP, it’s unlikely that Labour would gain many more seats in Scotland,” Hopkins said.
Labour’s response to this problem will be to pitch a slate of constitutional reforms that, it claims, can cut between the ‘nationalist extremes’ of Sturgeon and Ross and bolster the powers of the Scottish Parliament without harming the Union. That pitch is in fact already starting to take shape.
According to a report in the Financial Times on 22 November, Gordon Brown’s forthcoming constitutional review will recommend abolishing the House of Lords, loosening the fiscal constraints on English regions, and “beefing up the Electoral Commission.” Scotland, meanwhile, will get a little more leverage over the tax-raising powers it currently has and a consultation “into a limited extension of Holyrood’s ability to borrow money.”
And that’s it. That is Labour’s plan to federalize Britain: a barely updated version of the reforms floated in the run-up to 2014 and a rehashed pledge to scrap Westminster’s feudal upper chamber. The FT goes on to imply that Brown’s Scotland proposals were watered down in the face of criticism from Starmer’s team. “Some shadow ministers have been concerned that the report could recommend deeper autonomy for Scotland, provoking a backlash from certain English regions,” the piece said. Either way, the plans are incredibly feeble and demonstrate how little Labour has adapted to the realities of Scottish political life since 2014.
No doubt Sarwar hopes that the current period of SNP dominance is coming to an end because independence has been taken off the table in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling. But waiting for Scottish nationalism to decompose of its own volition isn’t much of a strategy. Nor is there any guarantee that the end of independence will lead to the end of SNP hegemony at Holyrood.
Instead, after 2024, the SNP can reinvent itself as a party of radical Home Rule, committed to strengthening the Scottish Parliament without (for now) explicitly breaking up the Union. You can see this transition starting to take place. Speaking outside Holyrood last week, Sturgeon said the independence movement, whose clear goal is to break up Britain, was now a “democracy movement”, which is a much vaguer and more politically malleable concept. (As Stephen Noon has argued recently, Home Rule also fits neatly into the party’s gradualist orthodoxy.)
I happen to think, too, that Sarwar is simply not a very good politician. His counter-offer to independence – a slight tweaking of Holyrood’s tax and borrowing powers – won’t be sufficient to break the SNP’s hold over the most constitutionally progressive parts of the Scottish electorate, which, in the absence of actually exiting the UK, will expect a wholesale restructuring of the British constitution. Moreover, as a privately educated Blairite best known for working with the Tories as part of the Better Together campaign, he is almost uniquely unqualified to win over Yes voters, who are on the whole poorer and more leftwing than their unionist counterparts. It is, in addition, going to be fun watching him explain to Remainers why Scotland should never be allowed to rejoin the EU. (There is a reason why, having been hailed as the party’s saviour, Sarwar led Labour to its worst-ever result at a devolved election last year.)
Much of the press coverage since Wednesday has focused on Sturgeon’s looming exit and the apparent peaking of nationalist support. To be clear, I think the closing of various ‘legitimate’ independence pathways does alter the future of Scottish nationalism. Sturgeon won’t stick around forever and, without her, the SNP will be a less effective election-winning machine. But as the clapped-out strategists at Labour HQ know better than anyone, the process of political decay in Scotland can take decades. “I don’t aspire to second place,” Sarwar likes to say. Given the evidence above, second place is precisely where he’s going to stay.