Clutching Victory from the Jaws of Defeat
Polling published this week from YouGov and IPSOS showed seemingly contradictory insights into the trajectory of Scottish politics. According to new YouGov polling, if a general election held tomorrow the SNP could fall back to 27 seats in Scotland, with Labour gaining 23 from their nationalist rivals to bring their seat tally up to 24, while the Tories and Lib Dems would take four apiece.
Patrick English, YouGov’s Associate Director has said: “The results suggest that repeated recent bad news stories for the SNP and its new leader, Humza Yousaf, including accusations of party mismanagement and potential criminal cases being brought against senior officials, have taken a serious toll on both the party’s popular support and its prospects of defending many of the 48 seats it won at the 2019 general election.”
Yet on the same day IPSOS Mori for STV issued a poll showing support for Yes resurgent at 53% in favour with 47% against.
So what’s going on?
Certainly the linkage between the SNP’s reputation and support – and the cause of independence is not what it was. The party can take a tremendous reputational hit (it remains to be seen whether its terminal and instant or partial and gradual) and this does not seem to have massively impacted on support for independence. The notion that ‘the movement is bigger than any party’ seems clearer than ever, if little else does.
Support for the SNP at Westminster is down ten per cent in six months. If this polling is right they face a wipe-out at the next election. yet they would remain the dominant party in Scotland and retain a number of MPS at Westminster once thought incredible. The SNP may be beleaguered on all sides but their historic Westminster lead allows them to take a massive electoral hit and still be the dominant party.
Emily Gray, Managing Director of Ipsos in Scotland, commented: “Labour will be hoping that the indication in this poll of a weakening relationship between past independence support and voting for the SNP becomes a trend on which they can capitalise.”
But is this perhaps wishful thinking?
When the Labour vote collapsed in Scotland voters were faced with an alternative that had behind it a big cause: independence, as well as a not-too-distant set of political principles. In other words the jump from the social democracy of Labour to the social democracy of the SNP wasn’t an obstacle for voters. But even in the context of SNP collapse the offer, or the alternative from Labour is dubious. Starmer’s party is relentlessly, studiously conservative. He says so. It will be, as he said “New Labour on steroids”. Each week he painstakingly spells out why he won’t overturn this or that Tory policy, on police powers, on repression of civil rights, on the environment, on public sector pay, or whatever it might be.
As Katherine Sangster, National Manger for the Scottish Fabians has observed: “Slugging it out with the Tories to be the “no compromise” pro-UK party is an electoral dead end … The path for Labour is clear. It must avoid the “no compromise” unionism versus independence stances that the SNP and Tories – bereft of other ideas – are locked into.”
Despite her optimistic tone, there is no sign, none whatsoever, that this will happen. Labour are absolutely committed to ‘Slugging it out with the Tories to be the “no compromise” pro-UK party’, and in doing so will come up against three simple realities that will impact their ascendancy. The first is the remarkable resilience of support for independence, now seemingly divorced from the reputation of the political ;party most associated with it. The second is the reality of the failed Brexit experiment and Scottish peoples deep hostility both to it, and the manner in which it was inflicted on us. The third is the ongoing experience of widespread social failure. The cost of living crisis hasn’t gone away anywhere and Starmer’s solutions seem thin on the ground. We are, once again, in the territory of ‘anyone but the Tories’ and the simplistic and proven-failure of relying on ‘just get the Tories out’ as a political mantra.
The problem is not just an absence of coherent policy, or even mimicking the Tories, the problem for Labour is a lack of narrative. As the writer John Harris has noted: “Starmer and Labour’s senior shadow ministers still mostly speak in a deadening political argot full of abstract nouns and concepts that have little resonance in people’s everyday lives. A year ago, his pitch to the public was all about “security”, “prosperity” and “respect”; now, he and his team want to “build a better Britain” that will supposedly push ahead in the “global race”. Insurgency requires energy, pace and emotional intelligence, but he seems slow, leaden and strangely cold. His key weakness is much the same as it has always been – the absence of a story about who he is, the condition of the country he wants to govern, and how Britain needs to change.”
Even as voters face crushing bills and inflation, housing crisis and deprivation – Starmer’s Labour party has little to say – and here we are again working on the assumption that just ousting an unpopular government will be a remedy to our multiple problems. This is the playbook that Britain repeats: mounting anger at dysfunctional and plainly corrupt Tory government eventually runs out of steam despite being kept on a life-support machine by a pliant corporate press. It is replaced by an ineffectual and scared Labour party on a wave of misplaced optimism and inherits all of the systemic problems created by the Conservatives. It has neither the guts nor the guile nor the political heft or deeper social support to actually effect change. It will implement some modest improvements (being better than the Conservatives is a low bar) before collapsing under the contradictions of its own inadequacies.
We face a massive accumulation of problems, mostly dire socio-ecological ones, but also issues of health (mental and physical) as well as new and emergent ones of technology and climate breakdown that take us into unchartered waters. In the face of this – and looking at the political parties lack of leadership ideas or credibility, there is much to be despondent about. The British political system seems designed to lurch between Conservative and Labour in an inexorable pattern of managed decline. But hope springs eternal. Even facing SNP collapse, with a barrage of negativity from the Scottish media about almost everything the Scottish Government does, even with the unholy alliance that now denounces even the most modest changes of policy at Holyrood, even with all these conditions in place, support for independence is rising. Few are misdirected by the whipped-up hysteria about migration, fewer still believe the relentless propaganda about how Scotland is, and ever will be useless and uniquely incapable. The reality is that living in Britain is like living in a broken state, and few of the solutions we are being presented with seem remotely credible, and that, paradoxically, is a good thing.