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The Guardian view on Labour and Scotland: a wound born of weakness | Editorial | Opinion | The Guardian
Dub|Aug. 08, 2019
I f the shadow chancellor had planned a bombshell announcement that would create maximum havoc in the Scottish Labour party, it would look exactly like what he said this week. A second independence referendum is the hottest question in Scottish politics. Scottish Labour opposes it. Its leader Richard Leonard has repeatedly said that Labour would refuse permission to the Scottish nationalists to hold such a vote. Yet John McDonnell went to Edinburgh on Tuesday and, without consulting Mr Leonard, said the exact opposite .
Speaking on the Fringe, Mr McDonnell said the issue was “for the Scottish parliament and the Scottish people to decide”. If a second referendum was proposed, he said: “The Scottish parliament will come to a considered view and they will submit that to the government and the English parliament itself. If the Scottish people decide they want a referendum, that’s for them.”
Mr McDonnell’s words were explosive. The pledge not to block the second referendum that the SNP is actively promoting pulls the rug from under Mr Leonard. It flatly contradicts Labour manifesto policy in 2017. It flies in the face of the views of most Scottish Labour MPs and MSPs. It leaves Labour facing both ways on the issue of the day in Scotland. But Mr McDonnell does not seem to have misspoken. After a meeting with Mr Leonard , at which the Scottish Labour leader insisted that the 2014 referendum was “a once-in-a-generation vote” and that a second referendum was “unwanted and unnecessary”, the shadow chancellor went right back out and repeated his comments in a second interview. He added that his views were shared by Jeremy Corbyn.
On Thursday the divisions deepened even further. In a remarkable statement , with large implications, most of Labour’s Holyrood MSPs said they would not accept a change of policy being foisted on them from London. Deploring Mr McDonnell’s comments and giving Mr Leonard their backing, the MSPs said: “Labour’s position on Scotland’s future is a decision for Scottish Labour, which the UK party must accept.”
Ordinarily, this might seem just another self-inflicted Labour mess. But Mr McDonnell picked this fight. There is only one plausible explanation of his gamble . It is that he has looked at current polling in Scotland and England and decided that Labour is not going to win an outright majority in the next UK general election, which could take place within weeks. As a result, he has concluded that, to function as a minority government, Labour must signal its willingness to strike a deal with the SNP , even if the consequence is to make an idiot of Scottish Labour.
This approach can draw some justification from the polls. In 2017 , Labour got 27% of the vote in Scotland and won seven seats. But in May 2019 , Labour slumped to 9% in the European elections. In the most recent Scottish poll, it was on 17% , leaving most of its Commons seats vulnerable to the SNP. In the wake of this week’s row, Mr Corbyn will now be even further away from making the gains in Scotland that he needs. In the 2015 election, David Cameron scored heavily in England with the charge that a minority Labour government would be in the SNP’s pocket. So it makes sense this time for Labour to get the issue into the public arena ahead of the election, and to make its terms – that it will not seek a pact but will not block another referendum – clear to the SNP.
There are two further points of potential mitigation for Mr McDonnell’s decision to stir things up so damagingly. One, put forward by Paul Sweeney MP on Thursday, is that a Corbyn government would demand a multiple-choice referendum in Scotland and include a fully federal UK option. That would be worth examining, if so. The other is that conceding a second Scottish referendum makes conceding a second vote on the EU easier. That too would be a bold move if it happened. Right now, though, these are mere conjectures. Those who are attracted by them would need to see concrete evidence before endorsing them. Evidence of that kind has been conspicuously absent from Labour announcements so far. For the moment, the important thing to remember is that what Mr McDonnell did this week is very much a sign of Labour weakness, not strength.
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