Sunday 26 June 2022

Starmer is in Sturgeon's pocket


There has been quite a lot of comment recently about the possibility of the SNP organising some sort of unofficial, advisory referendum in October of 2023. It is right and proper that people like me comment on this. The SNP has little enough opposition as it is in the Scottish media, so the more counter arguments are made the better. But there is a very good reason indeed why it is highly unlikely that there will be an unofficial referendum next year. There could be an official one the year after.

A Conservative Government will keep saying No until it is forced to concede a referendum. This won’t happen until either a full generation has passed since 2014 or support for independence approaches two thirds of Scottish voters. We are nowhere near that now. This leaves the SNP facing the alternative of an unofficial referendum. But this is only if the UK keeps voting Conservative.

But Keir Starmer is at present favourite to be the next Prime Minister and Labour is neck and neck to win the most seats. Starmer may be dull, but he is clever and far less objectionable than Jeremy Corbyn. So long as Starmer is able to keep the extreme left quiet he will put forward a manifesto that is not too scary and will have every chance of winning the next election, not least because the Conservatives will be blamed for inflation, the cost of living and are in disarray.

But the problem of British politics is that Labour cannot realistically win an overall majority assuming that the SNP continues to win nearly all the seats in Scotland. The Conservatives would need to move from an 80 seat majority and dominance in England to a catastrophic loss.

If Labour wants to govern without the help of the SNP it must win an additional seat in England and Wales for every seat the SNP wins in Scotland. Beating the Conservatives is not enough. Previous Labour seats in Scotland must now be won instead in England and Wales. But the electoral arithmetic suggests this is impossible.

Labour could try an electoral pact with the Lib Dems, but it is unclear how voters might respond. Someone in the southern England might be unwilling to lend their vote for the Lib Dems if it was portrayed as a vote for Labour or likely to lead to a Labour Government. But anyway, if electoral pacts were so easy why don’t the Pro UK parties try one in Scotland?

The truth is that by far the most likely outcome of pacts and tactical voting at the next election is a Labour minority Government. Conservatives will argue that this will mean that Starmer is in Sturgeon’s pocket, or tucked in her bra if she doesn’t have pockets.

If the Conservatives can convince English voters that a vote for Labour or the Lib Dems is a vote for Sturgeon it will be devastating for the Labour and Lib Dem campaign. English voters will see still more money going to the Scots and people who care about the UK will see Labour having to grant a legal official referendum to the SNP.

Labour supporters have been desperate to counter this argument since 2015. Ian Smart who is by far the cleverest Labour commentator in Scotland has made a very good argument that everyone should read.

He argues that a minority Labour Government would not have to give in to SNP demands on a referendum because Labour could dare the SNP to vote down a Queen’s speech knowing that to do so would bring in a Conservative Government. The SNP did just this in 1979 and was blamed for years and lost support in Scotland throughout the 1980s. The SNP gave you Thatcher.

But let’s look at this from the SNP point of view. It will campaign for independence at the next election while pretending that it is isn’t, but however many seats it wins will afterwards be the justification for indyref2. Let’s say it wins 45 again. Sturgeon goes to Starmer and demands a legal referendum. Starmer like Johnson and May says No. What then?

Sturgeon could say to her supporters sorry, Labour said No, but we have to vote for the Labour Queen Speech otherwise there might be a Tory Government. So, there is nothing we can do even though we hold the balance of power and we have to wait another five years. No English feet held to a Scottish fire. Sorry folks.

But voting against the Queen’s speech would not automatically lead to a Conservative Government. The Conservatives would not have a majority either. If the SNP brought down a minority Labour Government before it even properly began, we would have another election.

At this point the SNP would argue that all of the English parties ignore Scottish voters and Scottish MPs and that this provides the Scottish electorate with a reason not to vote Lib Dem or Labour. It would no longer merely be the wicked Tories who say No to Scotland it would be the wicked Red and Orange Tories too.

It would not be possible in this second election campaign to argue that the SNP had brought down a Labour Government leading Scotland to be ruled by Tories again, because the result of that election would have been decided. It could lead to a second Labour minority and the same dilemma as before.

If the Conservatives did win enough seats to govern, the SNP could argue that it was Labour’s failure to form a government with the SNP that was at fault, i.e., it was Labour ignoring Scottish SNP voters.

The idea that the SNP vote would collapse because it failed to support a Labour Government depends on the idea that Scotland now is like it was in 1979. But it isn’t. Support for independence in 1979 was relatively low and no one thought it was going to happen anytime soon including the SNP.

But if I were an SNP supporter in 2024, who am I going to be more furious with Labour who denied the SNP a coalition or the SNP who brought down a Labour Government because it refused to grant indyref2? Would Scottish independence supporters rejoin Labour, which is still just about Pro UK, or stick with the SNP?

Hypothetical issues like this are impossible to judge, because they depend on how they would be portrayed in the media and on how public opinion would react. It is possible that the SNP would be damaged by not voting for a Labour Queen speech or at least abstaining, but it is equally possible that Scottish Labour would be still more damaged for failing to give in to Sturgeon.

But even if the SNP did vote for a Labour Queen’s speech, it wouldn’t’ need to vote for anything else. The Labour Lame Duck would be able to get nothing through Parliament unless the SNP voted for it.

But ask yourself this. Is it more likely that a Conservative Government with an absolute majority would give in to SNP demands for indyref2 or alternatively is it more likely that a Labour Government dependent on SNP votes for everything?

Labour supporters won’t like this, but the Starmer in Sturgeon’s pocket argument still works. He couldn’t get anything done unless he made concessions to the SNP and at some point, there is every chance he would concede indyref2 just because English Labour supporters would accept it as the price of Labour being able to govern at all.