Learning the Wrong Lessons in Scotland

The Labour Together report provided all the evidence that the party needs to pursue a broad coalition in Scotland – before concluding that it should back a narrow unionist approach anyway.

Retrospection and understanding our failings, learning from and then correcting them, is essential. The Labour Together Report should be seen as a contribution to the broad thinking and analysis after the 2019 general election and what needs to be done as the Labour Party wrestles with how to win again.   

Any advice on how we work together more effectively and how we communicate better with – and become part of – the communities Labour wants to represent should be seen as a valuable contribution to our collective learning curve. Likewise, rebuilding our voter coalition through a transformative economic offer, as the report suggests, is essential – though it might help if the report said clearly that the 2017 and 2019 manifestos provide the foundations for such an offer.

Probably the most salient finding was that Labour has been losing support amongst our traditional, working class base for quite some time. However, there is little to cast light on why the decline happened in the first place. Instead, the report provides analysis that takes Labour out of the fray, almost as a bystander looking on as large numbers of those voters the party was formed to represent rejected us. The reality, of course, is that the Party itself was a central protagonist in that breakdown – by our actions and inactions.

Deindustrialisation, de-unionisation and widening geographic inequalities are cited by Labour Together, but there is nothing about Labour’s own role in government, which often either entrenched or failed to address these issues. There is little about how a Brexit approach that pushed back on the democratic expression made in June 2016 might have added to feelings of political alienation among parts of Labour’s core support.

Our working class support, the report confirms, significantly reduced in 2001 – long before the financial crash in 2008 and the expenses scandal in 2009, which are offered as reasons for political alienation. There is nothing on Labour’s failure to tackle the City of London, address deindustrialisation and revive manufacturing through an investment-led industrial strategy. There is nothing about Blair failing to change Thatcher’s anti-trade union laws or indeed his boast that the UK still had the most restrictive trade union laws in Europe.  

All that said the biggest disappointment in the report bar none is its coverage of Scotland. For the Labour Party, Scotland is fundamental to winning the next general election. If Labour doesn’t win Scotland then, as the report says, to win the next general election we need to start beating the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg in North East Somerset.

But the recommendations in relation to Scotland will hinder rather than help in that quest and are contrary to the wider recommendations made for the rest of the UK. In fact, they fly in the face of the evidence presented in the report itself. The report correctly states that the ‘Labour vote… collapsed after the 2014 independence referendum’. It continues that ‘academic studies point to a big jump in support for the SNP among manual and routine workers from 17 per cent in 2010 to 42 per cent in 2015’. The 2014 referendum, it concludes, ‘resulted in the loss of both more traditional and younger voters to the SNP’.

Starmer himself is now ignoring this evidence and taking – as the academic Ailsa Henderson said this week – a ‘muscular unionist’ approach to Scotland. In discussions with Scottish Labour Party members this week he doubled down on such an approach and appears to have fallen into the trap that deems Edinburgh South as representative of Scotland as a whole. Not only does this not even try to bridge the divide between Yes and No voters, not only does it speak to just one part of the electorate, it also compromises a large proportion of the current Scottish Labour voting base. 

Using data from the Scottish Election Study, Professor Henderson shows that one quarter of Scottish Labour voters want a referendum in the next year and another quarter want one within 5 years. It’s no wonder some see Labour’s approach more as a kamikaze unionism than the muscular variety. This does not mean that Labour should support another referendum. But it does suggest that Labour should stop conflating its (rightful) opposition to independence itself with opposition to the holding of another referendum, which is seen as undemocratic and prevents the party getting on with the day job of proposing a different vision for Scotland.

A better approach for Starmer to take would be to present that vision while owning past mistakes and understanding and acknowledging the complacency that took hold in the party in Scotland. He should speak about how voters were taken for granted; how persistent social and economic problems were ignored for too long; how we failed to reindustrialise Scotland; how too many working-class Scottish communities were left behind; and how Better Together was a disaster and a tipping point, in much the way Brexit was, for swathes of traditional Labour voters.

Winning them back and rebuilding a broad electoral coalition in Scotland is central to Labour’s future success. Potential SNP-to-Labour switchers are 3 times more in number than Tory-to-Labour switchers. Basic maths tells us SNP switchers are what is needed to help us win and not just compete for second place. 

Yet, the recommendation in this report, and Starmer’s apparent strategy, is to go with the recent SEC decision to take a much harder line on a second independence referendum. This implies an appeal to Tory voters, even though their views are likely to be polar opposite to the party on most social and economic issues. This is a pick and mix approach to democracy that exposes Starmer. Voters we need to win back will rightly ask why he, as the architect of Labour’s second referendum position on Brexit, is pushing such a hard line against another independence referendum up here. Scottish voters are not daft.   

The Scottish recommendations in the report are also inconsistent with the suggestion that ‘Labour needs to identify and build a coalition of voters that spans generations, geographies and outlooks’. Taking such a muscular approach and coming down resoundingly on one side is contradictory to its broader thrust. For example, the report said the following in relation to Brexit:

It was clearly damaging for Labour to be seen as not wanting to come down on either side of what was widely acknowledged as the main issue of the day. At the same time there is no doubt that promising simply to stop Brexit, or drive it through, would have cost Labour significant numbers of votes. The Commission saw no conclusive evidence that a more absolute position on either side of the debate would have led to a better net result.

If that is true of Brexit, then how is taking an absolute position on another independence referendum in Scotland going to help us? Let us be clear – not taking an absolutist position on another referendum does not mean supporting one. And let’s put to bed the myth that the Labour leadership in the last election took a ‘pro-referendum’ position. It didn’t. It took a democratic position that said clearly that Labour didn’t support a referendum, but that the party shouldn’t block one if it was the will of the Scottish people.

This was a principled position that understood Labour needs to build a coalition of voters in Scotland. Strangely enough, it is the same type of approach being recommended by this Labour Together report for the rest of the UK – but completely at odds with the recommendations it made for Scotland.

Labour needs to speak to both sides of the Yes/No divide in exactly the same way it has to speak to those on both sides of the Leave/Remain divide. That means proposing a new post-Brexit and post-Covid constitutional offer that recognises the current arrangement is broken. It means outlining what a genuinely transformative economic offer is, and making plain that a UK Labour government could change people’s lives for the better in Scotland.

Far too many see our staunch and absolutist position on independence and reject us before they can engage with the bread and butter policies. There is no easy path for Labour in Scotland, but becoming a Better Together tribute act is the worst one available. If the party continues on its current trajectory, Keir Starmer had better plan how to win Tory seats in Somerset in 2024 – because Scotland is going to be lost to Labour for a generation.