The battle is on for Scotland at the next General Election.
The results from the local election results in England would, if replicated in next year’s likely General Election, leave Keir Starmer’s Labour Party one sandwich short of the full picnic – or about 14 seats away from an overall majority. But that is not going to happen, senior Labour figures said – because Scotland will come good and give them the half baguette they need for everyone to tuck in.
Will Scotland switch to Labour in a big way? The SNP of course, has had its own troubles but they may ease. It now appears that the performative policing which took place outside Nicola Sturgeon’s home was led by the UK’s National Crime Agency – not Police Scotland. Sturgeon grew up in public life in Scotland – if she stole money from the party I personally will guarantee to run down Sauchiehall Street naked shouting ‘I’m a banana’, or climb Ben Nevis in carpet slippers shouting “I have neeps for brains.” If short of money, Sturgeon could maybe have taken the pay rise she has foregone since 2007. There should be some clarity on this by the next general election, but the damage to public perception may have already been done.
Polls show that the Labour Party is likely to do an awful lot better in Scotland next year – they currently hold just one Westminster seat. MP Ian Murray, who is a master of tailoring messaging to the different segments of his vote base in Edinburgh South, has been quoting an independence supporter who said he would lend his vote to Labour next time “to get the Tories out”.
And a lot of Scots, whether or not they support independence, do want to get the Tories out at UK level. Stories of starving kids in England eating rubbers out of desperation, as so few of them get free school meals, are distressing. (52% of the school roll in Scotland get them, but just 22% in England). Child poverty rates in the north of England are now off the scale according to the Joseph Rowntree Trust.
Issues such as poor regulation and management of privatised infrastructure that is vital to us all, like energy and the national grid across the UK, are adding to devastating – and unnecessary – fuel poverty in Scotland and limiting Scotland’s ability to respond to climate change.
The UK government is also aggressively attacking Holyrood. It has said, for example, that Scotland’s elected Ministers no longer have the right to work internationally with the UK’s network of embassies and consulates. The irony is that the man who the UK has sent to represent Scotland on several important trade missions, including to India, is Scotland Office minister Malcolm Offord, a propagandist and Tory donor who was gifted a lifelong seat in the UK Parliament after failing to win election to Holyrood.
Why opt for Labour?
So should Scots vote Labour? Stephen Flynn, leader of the Westminster SNP group, argues that Scotland will be better served by a strong SNP voice at Westminster – they can support policies that are good for Scotland while keeping independence on the table. But I guess that only works if the Conservatives fall below the number they would need to form another administration – which the local election poll does suggest will happen.
But politics in the UK is not a level playing field. England has been for two-thirds of the last two centuries under the rule of the Conservative Party. Recently, the Conservatives’ abuse of the system has reached a historic peak – or perhaps trough is a more appropriate term. They have far more in the way of both legal and dark money, their network of patronage extends into every aspect of public life from the media to museum boards. Money from big oil and big pharma and private healthcare is disproportionately directed to the Conservatives.
In a review of “Tory Nation: How One Party Took Over” in the Spectator, former Labour MP Chris Mullin wrote: “Personally, I don’t find the Tories’ long hegemony that surprising, given the huge imbalance of resources between them and other parties and a written media, much of which, as the late Ian Gilmour remarked, could not be more servile were it state controlled. Plus, of course, there has been an element of luck. The Thatcher revolution would not have been possible without the proceeds of North Sea oil. The wonder is that Labour has triumphed as often as it has, with what Harold Wilson used to refer to as its penny-farthing machine”.
Keir Starmer will make a good Prime Minister – perhaps better than a leader of the opposition. He is a serious person and he has integrity – which will make a change. I don’t like it when they make him crack lame jokes. I would prefer to see him talking about things that will restore standards in public life – for example, saying that the post of BBC Chair will no longer be a political appointment.
The Labour Party’s policy slate is being left deliberately vague. That is an understandable tactic – anything they do propose will be torn apart by the UK’s right-wing press, which is the agenda setter for broadcasting.
But I do think they should make a more concrete proposal on Brexit – I suggest “selective alignment”. This is the 5-step pitch (with apologies to “The Challenger Sale”)
1 Brexit has turned out to be a lot more complicated than we thought!
2 Vote Leave led people to think that ending free movement would boost the wages of British workers. But that didn’t happen. Instead, it has shrunk the economic pie. It has also damaged trade and made imports, especially food, more expensive.
3 So let’s not put up more barriers to trade by diverging – needlessly – from Europe’s generally high standards. Recently for example the UK has started to allow make-up to be tested on animals again. We don’t need to do stuff like that.
4 Instead, the UK could set out a general presumption of alignment. In an extreme case, we could still have the potential to diverge, but that general presumption of alignment would make the Northern Ireland protocol run more smoothly and ease the flow of goods and services between the UK and the EU.
5 Selective alignment could be the basis for a UK Free Trade Area, a bit like EFTA but different. UKFTA. That would let the standards of living in the UK recover compared with other European countries.
That would not be as good as an independent Scotland re-entering the EU but it would lift some of the crushing weight that Brexit is putting on the shoulders of people across the UK, whether in business, health care, education – or just for hard-pressed mums who have to empty their purses to buy imported fruit.
The answer is that there is no doubt that some – perhaps many – pro-indy Scots will lend their votes to Labour to help get the Tories out. And that will be OK, it is a legitimate choice. But if the Labour Party then turns round and reads those votes as votes to remain in the Union and as a rejection of independence in the future – then that will be a betrayal that will come back to bite them.
In the long term, the old saw that long periods of Conservative rule are a price worth paying to remain in the UK, and that Labour will fix everything when they get back in, has worn too thin for me. I want to see Scotland take responsibility for its own future, build and manage its own democratic institutions. So at some point, England will have to get ready to do the same.