Labour adrift in constitutional no-man’s land

Ian Smart said an interesting thing this week.  Which is not so unusual but this was very interesting.

On Newsnicht he stated that devolution was an agreed settlement between Westminster and Scotland and that if we want to improve that settlement, there is no need to put that to a referendum.  “If it’s agreed, it’s agreed”, he said with typical avuncular Smartian logic.  And while Ian would not claim – nor necessarily want  – to be speaking officially for Scottish Labour on this or any other issue, his remarks rather gave Labour’s game away.

Devo plus/max won’t be on the ballot paper, not if it can help it.  And the party’s strategy for the moment consists of doing everything it can to achieve this.

Hence, the remarkable sight of the party’s UK and Scottish leaders standing shoulder to shoulder with the Tories, parroting Unionist lines.  And unlike the Tories, who say no to independence because they are Unionists and believe in the line they have drawn in the sand, Labour’s position is utterly dishonest.

It has nothing to do with principle and everything to do with power and its pursuit.  Scottish Labour thinks it can persuade the Scottish people to vote no to independence on the promise of an improved devolution settlement once they are returned to power.  It is prepared to abandon the principle of home rule upon which its party was founded for the time being because power trumps people.

In casting itself adrift in the referendum process and into constitutional no-man’s land, it appears the party is prepared to gamble its all on a high stakes strategy that is fundamentally flawed.

Success is predicated on Scottish Labour, and indeed UK Labour’s, ability to win elections in 2015 and 2016.  Ian Smart is right: we do not need a referendum to shift some of the powers listed so assiduously in Schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998 from Westminster to Holyrood.  But we will need a UK Government willing to offer a further legislative opportunity.

To deliver more devolution to Scotland, Labour will have to win the next UK General Election.  Granted, we are three years out but the party is in a parlous and near mutinous state.  Eds Miliband and Balls may have begun what they see as an essential policy triangulation process in order to make their party electable again but the core support has erupted in protest.  Think back to when Labour won the 97 election:  Tony Blair had spent three years by then, on the front foot, with his party looking and acting like a government in waiting.  The current Labour party is nowhere near that stage of readiness.

Even suppose Labour wins in 2015, it would also need to win the 2016 Scottish elections, or at least win enough seats to form a majority administration (presumably with the Liberal Democrats).  Again, a lot could happen between then and now, but the SNP is sitting at record levels in the polls, with sky-high approval ratings for the First Minister, Alex Salmond.  The thinking appears to be that the Scottish electorate will be so grateful for Labour’s offer to save it from the clutches of independence and appreciative of the offer of jam tomorrow, in the form of an as yet undefined devo plus/max settlement, that it will vote no en masse and flee from the SNP’s side and back into the Labour fold

If this is the intention, it is so convoluted and contrived, dependent on so many fanciful notions and winds of fortune, as to be utterly incredible.  It forgets that Labour has lost the trust of the Scottish people.  The ties that bind have been broken not just once, but twice in recent Scottish elections.  Moreover, it presumes that all those people who say – consistently – in opinion polls that they’d like more powers for the Scottish Parliament are prepared to wait until Labour – and Labour alone – offers them.  It also conveniently ignores all the threads that the SNP wove so convincingly in its 2011 election campaign to such emphatic effect – positivity, hope not fear, and the offer to the Scottish people to have their say, for them to determine their future.  And crucially it is blind to the fact that already between 30 and 40% of people are prepared to vote yes to independence and some of them would need to be persuaded back to supporting the status quo.

Kenny Farquharson, in a powerful piece in this week’s Scotland on Sunday, accuses Labour and the Liberal Democrats of “currently prioritising their own narrow political interest over what’s good for the Scottish national interest”.  How else to explain their reluctance to offer up a third way for the referendum?

Not necessarily to demand a third question:  that is potentially counter-productive.  An indecisive result across the options would be the worst of all worlds, in political and legal terms.  Imagine a 38/37 split between devo plus and independence!  We’d still be recounting and squabbling over spoilt papers in 2015.

No, the solution is to soup up the Scotland bill currently before Westminster.  Add in all the powers recommended by the Scottish Parliament Scotland bill committee and create a new status quo from which to make the case for and against the final step to independence.  It would mean that ultimately the Scottish people would triumph, their wishes having been enacted and fulfilled by their elected tribunes, and we’d still have a two question referendum asking voters straight out whether to twist or stick.

It’s going to be a long haul to the destination in autumn 2014.  The process matters and the most important issue to be settled is the question or questions to be put.  But as with all chess games, once opening moves have been made, there comes a point when a tactical exchange of pieces must ensue, to allow the battle proper to commence.

And that battle is one in which the Scottish people cannot be treated as mere spectators, but be invited to participate fully, on the terms that they want.  Which is to determine the extent, and not just the notion, of power and control over their lives in the future.

If Scottish Labour wants to emerge on the other side of the referendum with any shred of electability, respectability, credibility or indeed, any ability at all, then it must remove itself from constitutional no-man’s land and start to think in terms of a just war.  One which has a just cause, fought for a good and just purpose and not for self gain nor the exercise of power.


11 thoughts on “Labour adrift in constitutional no-man’s land

  1. What a fascinating post. As a Labour Party member I was interested to read your impressions on what you imagined Labour Party strategy to be and amused at you considering it cynical political shenanigans to refuse to conflate separation with devolution. Indeed it could be argued that the attempt to put two mutually exclusive options on the same ballot paper and present them as complementary is as cynical as anything dreamed up by the so-called ‘unionists’.

  2. The poll ratings for Labour party and the Labour leadership are horrendous.

    Labour in England support the Coalition’s economic and referendum plans but are behind the Tories in the polls.

    Labour in Scotland oppose the SNP’s economic and referendum plans but are behind the SNP in the polls.

    Labour north and south of the border lack vision and a visionary leader.

    The referendum will be close, but in event of a “NO” it is still unlikely that the Labour will win in 2015 or 2016.

    The odds are poor, but Labour must know this. They need a new direction, they need new ideas, they need competent leaders, they need distinctive polices, they need to be popular, they need to change —- but they can’t.

    Labour can’t go into the 2014 referendum with them being effectively side-lined by their own inaction. The SNP may lose the referendum but Labour could end up being the biggest loser.

  3. Politicians acting in their own interests – surely not?

    Immediately post-election I thought there would be pressure to beef up the Scotland Bill to offer a more palatable version of the status quo but perhaps it will be used later to seek to spike a more optional ballot paper.

    If it genuinely is Labour’s plan to offer “rescue” from a distant hill on a white horse and in a white hat then they are even more delusional than I thought.

  4. Could Labour be looking at an SNP without Salmond as the leader? If the SNP fail to win the Referendum, would Alex remain in post at the end of the current parliament?

    Perhaps the thinking is that the SNP will have put all their effort into the Referendum, pay scant attention to Wesminster elections – which Labour would likely gain from – and be unable to mount a strong campaign for the next Holyrood elections.

    The first assumption is the most likely. But even if that happens, Labour still require a strong leader at Westminster, something they currently lack. Milliband reminds me of a brand new graduate trainee management consultant – nice and shiny but no charisma and no real skills or experience.

    If the SNP lose the Referendum, I think they will still keep power at Holyrood.

  5. Labour’s devolution strategy is dependent on independence being rejected, Devo-Max being off the ballor paper, Labour winning the 2015 UK election and the 2016 Scottish election. What are the odds on that?

    Say 50/50 on each outcome, then that represents odds of 16 to 1. Not very likely.

    Labour must know that represents politics of failure.

    The odds favour the SNP strategy in comparison.

  6. That the “Scottish” Labour Party prefers Westminster rule of Scotland by Tory led governments over independence for Scotland will poison their arguments and destroy their credibility.

  7. Ian Smart is of course right here.
    It is a point I have tried to make several times in letters to various newspapers but without any publication.
    There is a misunderstanding about the description “Status Quo” in the constitutional context. The status quo does not mean everyting staying as it is.
    The status quo is the present deployment of political powers which allows Wetminster to extend (or indeed contract) the powers of the Scottish Parliament
    Thus the status quo can deliver “Devo-max” or “Indy-Lite” or whatever other description is afforded to enhanced devolution so any proposal to have such an option on any referendum is at best a redundancy.

    The basic political effect of the Devo-max proposal is the absolute chaos it is causing among the unionists who are loosing the battle big time at the moment

  8. The Scottish Labour party created the present system of devolved government in the belief it would stop the SNP cold in it’s tracks. It had one colossal flaw, which in their moment of pride they just couldn’t see. The flaw was their popularity with the Scottish electorate and the belief that it would always be on their side no matter what. They have developed a sense of entitlement to the Scottish vote that is quite breathtaking. If they were capable and worthy, then it would not have lost in 2007 let alone 2011. But the party of today are not the same folk who ushered in devolution, they are lesser politicians standing in the shadow of Salmond and the SNP. You only had to look at their behaviour in opposition to see how it had unhinged them.

    The Scottish conservatives of today are not the pragmatic party that held half the vote in 1955. This party abandoned and destroyed the very pillars of their support in Scotland.They drew a line in the sand in 1997, but Scotland crossed it and pushed them aside – and in the sidelines they remain. Ruth Davidson drew another line, but its largely symbolic as Scotland has long since moved on past them. Scottish Labour are about to commit the same error and could very well suffer the same fate. The Lib Dems are all – politically – dead men walking, but haven’t the wisdom to see it.

    The unionists have taken comfort in a poll that gives them a slight advantage in terms of people in favour of the Union. But this is largely due to the fact that the question of the Union remaining intact, has never really been put to the test. The question has never really been examined in detail or under the harsh glare of public debate or widely reported in the press.
    This is going to happen now and those same unionists are going to have to make an argument they have never had to make; and to do so in a way as Lincoln had tried to do, invoking the mystic chords of memory, our shared history and sacrifice, to appeal to the better angels of our nature. To say why the Union should stand, to express what it means to them, what it gains them and what it gains us.

    This is what they will not do. They will instead try to race each other to the bottomless pits of negativity. They will instead talk of how expensive it would be. How damaging to our interests. We wouldn’t be taken seriously on the world stage. We can’t keep the pound, we can’t keep the queen, we won’t be able to watch the BBC. We will have to give up our English friends because they would be foreigners. We’d have to pay more for the stupidity of banks, because they have the name “Scotland” somewhere in the company logo. We’d have to join the euro. We’d be just like the Greeks. We won’t be able to have an army to fight wars in far flung fields. We’re not capable, not able, too stupid, too tribal , too wee, too poor.
    Everything we are is down to the largesse of our more capable richer neighbour, so wouldn’t it be better if we stayed put and knew our place.

    We are going to be on the receiving end of an ever increasing campaign of negative stories and attacks. It’s already starting. But they still haven’t been able to make a credible and positive case for the union. As time marches on to the appointed day, and they keep this line of attack up, people are going to notice the absence of a positive case. They are going to notice the increasingly hostile elements of English opinion who have largely swallowed the line as to how they pay for everything in Scotland. People in Scotland are going to ask hard questions of the Union, and I fear the unionists won’t have any answers for them. They will fall for the trap the Scottish conservatives fell for long ago – they won’t examine their own conduct or their own message and conclude we just can’t be listening properly, so lets bang the same drum a bit more loudly.

    The ironic thing is, that the question was not really a serious issue at the time of the vote in 2011. We voted the SNP back in because they had done a reasonably good job despite the best efforts of Scottish labour to oust them. Those Scots that did vote for them, did so knowing there would be a referendum at the latter half of the Scottish Parliament. The only ones who have decided to make it a burning issue and demanded it be held sooner are the Unionists. If this was such an issue why did not agree to hold it in 2007?

  9. Whilst I agree with much of what is written here, I am undecided how to vote in a referendum. Particularly so as I don’t know what I’m going to be asked yet. Your suggestion of an agreed modified Scotland bill to provide a two question ballot is a good one and if that were the choice it would almost certainly result in a vote for devo max. It would also give the opportunity for a future independence referendum as you allude to.

    I know a fair cross section of folk from all political hues and I have to say that if there is a consensus then it is for the status quo warts and all. There is the paradox. We have one political party capable of running Scotland and the electorate have realised this. The SNP though hasn’t properly sold its raison d’etre despite what sections of the media are saying.

    LIving on the doorstep of Faslane and Coulport with all the attendant primary and secondary jobs, I already know what the vote will be in my area – or at least what the vote won’t be. This is the only area in Scotland (Dumbarton) where the Labour vote increased in the Scotparl elections last year.

    The fear factor is working well here and it isn’t just Daily Mail readers who are fretting about house prices.

    That same fear factor is the most effective weapon the unionist parties have. Expect it to be deployed without limit or mercy in the next couple of years.

  10. Milliband stands up in at Westminster and states “We in this side of the House are 100% in agreement with you [Cameron]”. Lamont stands up at Holyrood and effectively tells Salmond that Labour would rather Cameron decides Scotland’s future than the SNP.

    Labour have left themselves with absolutely nowhere to go, except ever closer to the tories. Unless Labour remembers its roots before the year it out, it looks pretty dire for the Union.

    • If we’re still in a body politic where it matters come the next Westminster election, here’s all the SNP need to do in their campaign: re-run that clip.

      I’ve been saying it for over 25 years now (with increasing examples to cite).
      1979: Scotland votes: Labour. Scotland gets: Tory
      1983: Scotland votes: Labour. Scotland gets: Tory
      1987: Scotland votes: Labour. Scotland gets: Tory
      1992: Scotland votes: Labour. Scotland gets: Tory
      1997-2005: Scotland votes: Labour. Scotland gets: Redwashed Tory
      2010: Scotland votes: Labour. Scotland gets: Mostly Tory

      To steal a phrase: Labour isn’t working.

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