With Keir Starmer’s success in the leadership election, it is time to see whether his ‘unity’ credentials can be put to the test in front of the UK’s most divided electorate: Scotland.
Twenty years ago, Labour’s hegemony in Scotland was unrivalled. In 1997, the party gained 45.6% of the vote and fifty-six seats in Westminster. There are now more pandas in Scotland than Labour MPs (Tian Tian and Yang Guang currently reside in Edinburgh Zoo). In 1999 and 2003, Labour governed in Holyrood in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. The latest polling from Ballot Box Scotland has Labour on 15.4% ahead of the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections, nine percentage points behind the Conservative Party and twenty-six points behind the SNP.
Labour needs regeneration across the country but nowhere is the fight harder or more pressing than in Scotland. After the general election in 2019, of those who did not vote Labour, only 13% seriously considered giving their vote to the party. We have reached crisis point in Scotland, given its important to the party’s electoral map (every English seat on the target list up to and including Jacob Rees-Mogg’s North Somerset would need to be won to form a majority without Scottish seats).
These problems can, however, be remedied with clearer messaging. It will not be possible to catch the SNP before the Scottish Parliament elections next year. The latest polls show a fluctuation between 45% and 52% support for independence and the SNP will clean up that vote for as long as it exists. Labour can, however, defeat the Conservatives in Scotland with a harder stance on independence. Jeremy Corbyn floated the idea of a referendum after 2021 while John McDonnell suggested that Labour would allow IndyRef2 were it supported by a majority of Holyrood, contradicting official party policy. This is where the Conservatives have beaten us. The Scottish electorate view Labour as having no official policy on the most crucial political matter in the country’s modern history. Going into the Scottish elections next year without a clear stance on independence would be a monumental waste of time. More promises of delayed referenda or leaving Holyrood to its own devices would be pointless, given that, as the SNP said in 2014, Labour is “not even in the position to deliver a pizza”.
Keir Starmer’s plan for Scotland includes a new devolution settlement, mirroring a federalist Britain, in which Labour would take many of the powers gained from Brussels after Brexit and devolve them to Holyrood. This would include more Scottish powers over fisheries, tax rates and energy policy. It is worth pointing out that greater devolved powers for Scotland have been Labour policy for a number of years but the communications strategy is what needs improve if Labour is to beat the Conservatives in 2021. No half measures on independence, no kowtowing to the SNP. Since 2014, even when the two parties stood more opposed than ever on a national level, Labour-voting unionists have lent their votes to the Tories on the grounds that they take a tougher line on independence.
2021 also presents great opportunities for Labour if they can get themselves into a position to be the official opposition in Holyrood. If the SNP are deprived of a majority, Labour has the opportunity to really hold them to account on their failures in health and education and to deny them a second independence referendum. Many cite the SNP’s minority government between 2007 and 2011 as a high-point in fruitful and conciliatory Scottish policy-making. The SNP bear all the hallmarks of a bloated and decadent party, thirteen years into government, with allegations even more egregious than sleaze hitting party grandees like Alex Salmond and Derek Mackay. A fresh start for Labour offers them the opportunity to wrestle back the agenda from the SNP and become a serious party in Scotland again. That will be the only way back to power in 2024.
Albie Mills is Scottish Secretary for the Young Fabians.