In the third article for the Young Scottish Fabians' election takeover, Finn Smyth discusses the implications of the Scottish election for the Labour Party.
Keir Starmer has rallied the Labour party to expect a lacklustre performance in today’s elections. It's not surprising that most analyses in the election run-up have focused on England, nor is it a shock that red flags (or blue, rather) of concern are being waved for Hartlepool. Why would it? Labour's performance in England is a major cause for concern given the Conservatives disastrous management of every crisis from the pandemic to who paid for Boris Johnson’s wallpaper. The Labour leader has surely been presented with the most excellent opportunity to castigate the government for its failures, and yet his approval ratings have never been lower. Maybe the implications of the Scottish election are not as worrying as those south of the border?
Those interested in British politics are not necessarily as interested in Scottish politics, but, whether you’re pro-independence or pro-union, not enough emphasis has been placed in England on the fact that ‘Britain’ could be at stake in Scotland today. Granted, it’s not as clear cut as if pro-independence parties win a majority, then Scotland becomes independent. Boris Johnson has said repeatedly that he would block a second referendum, but Nicola Sturgeon has said repeatedly that she would go ahead with it either way. The decision on a second referendum could be made by the supreme court. The potential consequences of the Scottish election are variably complex, potentially massive, definitely exciting, yet major press organisations like Reuters, the Guardian and the BBC are only publishing their core reflections now. As Glen Campbell at the BBC puts it, albeit briefly, in Scotland, “however low energy this election might be, the political stakes are extremely high.”
So, while we can’t necessarily complain about the broad lack of electoral coverage in Scotland compared with England, we can point out that the fate of Hartlepool and the performance of Starmer is perhaps less important than than the impending doom of Labour politics in Scotland. At least for today. The Labour Party in Scotland is literally trying to lose. Although Anas Sarwar has performed better than the other candidates, the new leader’s sweeping ambitions aim at second place. Imagine if this was Starmer. Despite the underperformance of Labour for over a decade, for Starmer to focus on losing the election, just less than the other losers, would be unthinkable. The campaign strategies of Scottish Labour reflect its decimation as a party since devolution. What good can it do to scrutinise Sarwar’s policy positions when he can’t even picture winning an election?
And what has the Labour party in England done to support Sarwar in recent months? Starmer has addressed Scotland directly once. He has appeared in Edinburgh and Glasgow on the campaign trail once. And he did not even mention Scotland or devolution in his ‘A New Chapter for Britain’ speech. Maybe this wasn't the way to go - as commentators in Scotland are fond of hammering, Labour has never won a sizeable majority in Westminster without Scottish support.
Whether Hadrian’s Wall will find a second life after today’s results is a question worth more consideration than Starmer or the rest of us have recognised. And even if Scotland does not sever itself from Britain, the slow and painful death of Scottish Labour is genuinely worrying for progressive politics south of the border as well as north of it. If Labour keeps ignoring this issue in England, it may find itself banking on second place there in the near future too.
Finn Smyth is the Publications Officer for the Scottish Young Fabians. Finn tweets at @finn_smyt_h.