LAbour’s Scottish problem can no longer be ignored. If the Scottish National Party wins an even larger majority after the May 7 regional and local elections, which all polls predict, it will not be just the UK, but Keir Starmer’s party that will face an existential crisis.
Nicola Sturgeon could use the mandate to opt for Catalan-style civil disobedience and hold an unconstitutional referendum, either on a Yes / No vote or on whether there should be a second independence referendum. She could, but I doubt she will. With at least half an eye on the prospect of leaving one union to join another, the EU, Sturgeon wants any divorce to be clear and legally binding.
There are two ways it can happen. Boris Johnson could give in and say: yes, the SNP has a clear democratic mandate: go put on your Indian boots. It is unlikely. You may enjoy being the Prime Minister who pulled the UK out of the EU, but you probably don’t want to go down in history as the Prime Minister who allowed the UK to dissolve. After all, he is the leader of the Conservative and Unionist party. What’s more, why would it go through all this new trauma, in addition to Brexit and Covid, when it makes no difference electorally whether Scotland stays or goes? The Tories are not likely to win any more seats in Scotland and the existence of the SNP and the problems they give Labor at election time anyway – the perception that Sturgeon is pulling Labor’s strings (be true or not) – it’s too delicious to pass. above.
Denying a second independence referendum will cause problems and make final independence more likely, but not under Johnson. Sure, there could be civil disobedience, sanctioned or not by the SNP, but London can be left out. As they do in Barcelona and Belarus. People always come home, don’t they?
The second route to a referendum is through a Labor government or, more likely, a Labor-led government, because the chances of Winning a job is only remote. The party, after the boundary changes, will need to win around 148 seats for the majority. That requires a bigger change than in 1945 or 1997. At the very least, Labor needs a plan B if it and the country are to avoid the humiliation and misery of an unprecedented fifth consecutive electoral defeat.
Given that the SNP is likely to return a significant bloc of MPs in the next general election, Labor will almost certainly have to rely on them to form a stable non-conservative government, at least for trust and supply, that is, to ratify a budget. In return, the SNP will want a second referendum on legal independence. By then, for purely democratic reasons, it will be impossible to deny them their wish. Being blatantly undemocratic is not good looks. In any case, the Conservatives will throw electoral mud at Labor, saying: Vote Labor, get Sturgeon. Rather than having to unconvincingly reject these lines in the heat of an election campaign, that conversation should take place now. As painful as it is, Labor should seize this moment to confront the sincere demand for independence and shoot the fox of the Conservatives.
The terms of a second independence vote should not repeat the mistakes of Brexit: it should not be a vote on principles, but on details: the nature of what the union’s exit would look like, so that everyone is clear why they are voting. Self-government, full self-government within the union, could be a viable third option, along with the status quo.
This is a difficult dance for Labor. But the party really has no other option, squeezed as it is between the SNP / Yes and Tory / No. vote. Agreeing on a second vote on these terms could be the only way out of the party’s dilemma, partly because it is also the best strategic opportunity. for the SNP. And because it presents them the same risk. The risk is that a Labor-led government that is enacting a Green New Deal, investing in public services and offering real autonomy could see a referendum victory for a third-way position. If there is no clear route for Scotland to rejoin the EU, then in a long and risky world of Covid, why risk not being in union at all?
What the Labor Party cannot do is turn its face to Scotland’s real and obvious demand to determine its own destiny simply by kicking the can down the road talking about a weak “constitutional commission” that seems to have already ruled out a second referendum. In deciding to open up to the SNP, the Labor Party should accept that the majority of Scots who are committed to independence are for good reasons backed by principles of social justice. In his own interest, Starmer should be fully prepared to now negotiate the terms of a second referendum with Nicola Sturgeon.
• Neal Lawson is director of the center-left lobby group Compass.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism