Paul Devlin says Scottish Labour has urgent thinking to do as support for independence grows and the party of devolution risks being painted as the party which doesn’t care what the Tories do.
There is a rather amusing Twitter account called Is Sir John Curtice on TV? which in the midst of the pandemic seemed to suggest that the well-known pollster appearing on television would in some way indicate a return to political normality. This week has perhaps proved the account correct, with Professor Curtice warning that whether or not Scotland will be in the union in the next four years is now less certain than it ever has been in the past.
All of us who campaigned for a No vote in 2014 should sit up and take notice. As an aside I vividly remember Professor Curtice having to justify his exit poll methods at the 2017 general election when he predicted the Conservatives losing their majority, to fellow pollster Peter Kellner who a year earlier had confidently predicted a Remain victory of ten points. I say this to highlight that of all the various pollsters and analyses available, John Curtice is among the most reliable.
His point on Times Radio, explaining how former No/Remain voters are moving into the Yes camp in far greater numbers than Yes/Leavers moving in the other direction, was concerning enough. But he also highlighted how the COVID-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on devolution as never before, specifically with health being a devolved matter. This came shortly after Nicola Sturgeon’s exhortation for SNP members and activists to “show not tell”.
I have written previously on this site about how the SNP’s veneer of competency led to their landslide victory in 2011 and it seems clear that the First Minster’s strategy is to repeat this ahead of next year’s Scottish Parliament elections. It also brings into sharp focus the repeated argument that the Scottish Government has handled the pandemic better than the UK Government, no matter how low that bar is set and the scandalous number of deaths in care homes notwithstanding.
So, we are where we are, and Scottish Labour, the party of devolution, has to articulate how that process (not event) can be taken forward in a post-lockdown and post-Brexit UK. Simply sticking the word ‘radical’ in front of any proposal doesn’t magically make it so, nor does it in anyway guarantee support from those people inclining to vote for independence.
Moreover, as I have also previously argued, we need to be far more switched onto the political reality. Attempting to portray the SNP as a party of grievance yet at the same time being oblivious to what may appear a legitimate grievance to many voters harms us politically. An example would be this week’s issue of state aid once the UK leaves the EU. Given that the Scotland Act of 1998 doesn’t specify which matters are devolved, the political reality is that many people will be sympathetic to Scottish Government pleas that such power should be devolved. And of course state aid was the basis for many arguments in favour of ‘Lexit’.
In summary, we as a party have to answer the question as it is to voters, not as we would wish the question to be. For a start, we need to show far more empathy with those who see themselves as potential Labour voters, progressives, centre-left and so on, who not unreasonably consider Scottish independence an option when they look at the Prime Minister, his chief adviser and utterly mediocre cabinet who appear to be taking us out of the EU with no deal.
While the economic case for independence is at best unproven, any hint of another Project Fear could simply send many voters into the SNP’s arms. These issues and questions are what the party of devolution has to begin grappling with, and urgently.