Back in July, which feels like a different lifetime politically because in those days it still seemed fairly plausible that there would be a Tory victory at the next general election, I had intended to blog about an extraordinary comment made on the BBC by the English Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh.
"Well, Keir Starmer's made it completely clear that there's absolutely no deals to do with the SNP, and actually in Scotland, Labour's gone so far as to rule out any relationship with them, even in local elections. I mean, I think we lost control of Aberdeen Council because we refused to do it. Only last week, we suspended two Labour councillors in Edinburgh because they weren't prepared to vote for the Tories over the SNP."
That was unwittingly a party political broadcast for the SNP. It said to former Labour voters in Scotland: "don't trust us, we'll always favour the party you want out of power over the party you quite like and have been voting for since 2015, and we'll do that because we're hellbent on stopping independence, which you support". Ironically, Labour's USP in Westminster elections in Scotland is that only they can keep out a Tory government - it's based on a fib, but it resonates with some voters because it has a 'truthy' feel to it. If McDonagh's comment were ever to become widely known, that USP would be straight out of the window, because apparently Labour suspend their own elected representatives for refusing to install Tory administrations. That's how much they love Tory rule.
There's also the problem if that if you want to win voters over, you generally want them to feel that you're on their side and on their wavelength. Treating the SNP as the equivalent of a terrorist organisation who must be stopped at all costs, even at the expense of putting the Tories in power, just seems downright weird to members of the public who have been routinely voting SNP since 2011 or 2015. Even if those people are becoming slightly jaded with the SNP, they'll look at the obvious major alternative in Labour and think "well, if you'd put the Tories in power to stop the SNP and independence, that's totally alien to my thinking and my values, so actually it looks like the SNP are still closer to being on my wavelength than you are".
Presumably McDonagh would be horrified if it was pointed out to her the effect her words were having in Scotland, but let's be honest, she shouldn't need to be told - it was a pretty bloody obvious blunder. So what on earth was she thinking? Naturally she had only one thing on her mind and that was voters in England. Labour are haunted by the success of the Tory attack line in 2015 claiming that Ed Miliband as Prime Minister would be a puppet dancing to Alex Salmond's tune, and ever since then they've gone to increasingly extreme lengths to be seen to be treating the most popular party in Scotland as untouchable scum. But they forget that their words are heard just as loudly in Scotland, and that those words demonstrate that the entire English political system and English political culture are literally at war with Scottish democratic aspirations, thus underscoring the necessity of independence. The impression given is that the primary motivating factor for English voters is to stop Scottish voters having any influence over the government of the UK - which is the perfect description of a toxic union, not a 'precious' union.
It certainly couldn't have been the case back in July that Labour had calculated that they didn't need Scottish voters - at that point there was no convincing polling evidence that they could form a government without either a) winning their old Scottish heartland seats back, or b) doing a deal with the SNP. So it must have been the age-old story that they felt safe in ignoring Scottish voters, who could be expected to just dutifully "fall into line" if enough English votes could be sewn up. And sure enough, since Labour's confidence has grown that they can win an outright GB-wide majority, we've seen their familiar sense of entitlement come to the surface - they plainly don't think they need to have any engagement with Scottish voters or to tailor messaging or policies to Scottish aspirations. They think they're just 'owed' Scottish votes as soon as they say "we are the only alternative to the Tories" - which is rather optimistic a mere four months after McDonagh boasted that Labour suspend councillors who oppose Tory rule.
That sense of entitlement is the only possible explanation for Keir Starmer's declaration the other day that "there is no case" for returning to the EU or for restoring freedom of movement. Unless, of course, like McDonagh, he's simply forgotten that Scots will hear his words too. A Scot Goes Pop / Panelbase poll in June 2020 showed that by a 60%-40% margin, Scotland wants to "rejoin the EU". It's not just that we think it was a mistake to leave in the first place, we actively want to rejoin. So what does Starmer have to say to us? Nothing it seems, other than to metrosplain to us that the only reason we could possibly want independence is because we don't like the Tories much and that he's about to solve that problem (notwithstanding the McDonagh plot hole). Well, newsflash, Keir: one of the other major attractions of independence is a return to the EU. If you're not offering an alternative route back into the EU or at least into the single market, and if you're not even going through the motions of showing empathy with a country which clearly thinks there is very much "a case" for rejoining, it may not make a great deal of difference to independence supporters whether there's a Tory government or a Labour government in London.
The uncomfortable reality for Labour is that the SNP first took power when Tony Blair was still Prime Minister, and when there hadn't been a Tory government for a whole decade. It may be that Labour will only get one shot at winning back their former Scottish voters in 2024, because once in power their popularity in Scotland will fade, just as the Blair government's popularity eventually faded. And when that happens, it won't be the Tories who the bulk of Scottish voters will look to as the alternative to unpopular Labour rule from London. It'll be independence.
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