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Is Labour still a Unionist party?

21 September 2015

4:25 PM

21 September 2015

4:25 PM

The answer to this question, it turns out, comes from Kenny Dalglish. The answer is mebbys aye, mebbys naw. At the weekend the Scottish party’s former leader suggested Labour should have (some kind of) ‘free vote’ in the event of there being another independence referendum. Kezia Dugdale, the latest occupant of this poisoned throne, conceded Labour MSPs should, if there is another referendum, be free to campaign for independence if that’s where their heart lies.

Now, in one respect this makes sense. Labour are in a hopeless position in Scotland right now. Moreover, the party cannot recover unless it wins votes from erstwhile supporters who have crossed the constitutional aisle to support the Scottish nationalists. Some 30 percent of habitual Labour voters endorsed independence last September and Labour can never return to power, or even relevance, without persuading some of them to come back.

Since the Unionist pie is divided three ways and, at present, constitutes little more than a half of all voters and, possibly, less than half those likely to actually vote in next May’s Holyrood elections Dugdale’s olive branch of desperation makes electoral sense.

Whether it can ever be enough is a different matter. In the end, this appeal rests on voters accepting that Labour will do a better job in government than the SNP and that Yes-supporting left-wingers should put short-term political considerations ahead of longer-term objectives.

It means convincing them – somehow! – that independence is off the agenda for, let’s say, a generation and these voters should therefore come home to Labour. Because, you see, only Labour can advance progressive politics and all that jazz. The Labour party, as evinced by its new leader in London, is not the Labour party you rejected so thoroughly in May. Even though Ms Dugdale was then the party’s deputy leader in Scotland.

Now, sure, some left-wingers in Scotland may say they are more likely to vote Labour next May now that Jeremy Corbyn leads the party but there is every difference between more likely and actually likely.

Because many, perhaps most, of these voters are already persuaded that independence is the route to a better, more progressive, more socially just, Scotland. Dugdale, then, asks them to vote for a party whose success would block that route. If you squint at this hard enough you can see it making a kind of sense; if you look at it with your eyes open you’ll see it makes no sense at all.

In the end, it amounts to this: come back to us so we can have a marginally more respectable election result but don’t worry about us being in power because we won’t be and you can still be free to cheer on the SNP as they manoevre for another referendum at some point in the future. I won’t mind you kicking us then but please don’t punch me right now.

Now perhaps Scottish Labour will one day listen to those SNP voices who say Labour could solve all its problems by simply coming out in favour of independence. But they have not – at least not yet – reached that point even if they are plainly edging closer to it.

The thing about Yes voters, you see, is that they are Yes voters and most of them want another referendum sooner rather than later. Labour is not going to talk about the conditions under which another referendum might be viable, far less hint at holding a referendum in the improbable event it returns to power next May. So why would left-wing Yes voters back Labour?

Meanwhile, those Labour voters who actually are committed Unionists (and these voters do exist) are left to wonder just what the hell is going on. The party leadership seems increasingly happy to accept the SNP’s criticism that by allying themselves with the Tories in the referendum campaign Labour made a terrible blunder.

But, as the EU referendum will make clear, being on the same side as another party in one argument does not eliminate your differences with them over all the other arguments. If it did then Nicola Sturgeon and David Cameron, who will campaign on the same side (if not as part of the same organisation) during the EU referendum would functionally be in the same party.

Labour, I suspect, are in a trap from which there is no escape. The constitution is the great dividing line of our time and Labour, at present, is a party that knows it cannot recover without Yes voters but that also lacks the means of appealing to those voters.

By contrast there is, good grief, an opportunity for the Scottish Tories. Matters are simpler for them. Thirty percent of No voters – that is, nearly 700,000 Scots – said their emotional attachment to the Union was the primary motivation for their No vote. Even back-of-an-envelope arithmetic, then, reveals there are something in the order of 300,000 voters who do not at present vote Tory but who, on the defining constitutional question, are closer to the Tories than to any other party.

That creates space – and reason –  for Ruth Davidson to downplay her Conservative credentials and hype her Unionist convictions. The Tories can argue they are the last remaining Unionists. Unlike Labour, they actually enjoyed the referendum campaign, not least because they were arguing for something they really believed in (the novelty of winning didn’t hurt either).

The problem, of course, is that many of these Unionist diehards do not bother to vote in Holyrood elections. Hell, many of them did not even vote in the UK general election this year (the story of which was in large part 300,000 or so ‘missing’ Unionist votes). Persuading them that Holyrood elections actually matter is one of Davidson’s most pressing tasks.

Labour’s softness, however, is Davidson’s opportunity. A Unionism of the Last Ditch failed the Tories in 1997 and 1999 but times have changed now that the party can be wholly in favour of devolution but implacably opposed to independence. That, as it happens, is where a good chunk of the electorate is too. At least in theory. If Unionists followed the same logic as Yes voters, the Tory vote should increase sharply. Whether it does, of course, depends on Davidson’s ability to further detoxify the party’s image.

Still, If you believe in Britain, vote for the party that believes in Britain too is a better rallying call for the Conservative and Unionist party than any they’ve had in years.

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