As the UK Labour conference gets underway the party is again hopeful that it will, for the first time in a generation, be able to lead the next UK Government - probably with no overall majority. The next general election is scheduled for 2024; it is possible it will come sooner than that. But whenever it is, it will be fought in Scotland on a single question - Does Scotland have the right to self-determination?
The Labour Party leadership continues to give a resounding “No” to that question - regardless of how the people of Scotland vote in that election. Their rhetoric on the issue is aggressive and likely to upset many potential voters. The Observer (the Sunday Guardian) reported on Sunday:
“He [Starmer] is especially vehement about not making any deals with the SNP. People may have underestimated just how fervent he is in his conviction that the United Kingdom must be kept together…In the event that the SNP tried to blackmail a minority Labour government, he believes he can call their bluff. "We will get them to blink. If they want to bring down a Labour government and introduce the risk of another Tory government in Westminster, they can go and explain that to their voters in Scotland. We wouldn't do a deal and I don't think we need to do a deal."
Labour's policy is that if they ended up holding power after the next election, they would refuse to support a referendum on Scottish Independence, as the UK Conservative/Lid-dem Government did in 2012 with the Edinburgh Agreement. Instead, they want to set up a commission on reforming the House of Lords, a manifesto promise they have been making for over 100 years and not acted upon when in Government.
This seems at odds with the latest Social Attitude report, showing 4 in 10 Labour supporters in Scotland and 3 in 10 in England support independence for Scotland.
Here are three reasons why the Labour Party should reconsider its position on Scotland.
1 If the Labour Party gets a lower share of the vote than the SNP, they will have no mandate in Scotland.
In the 2019 general election, the Conservatives got 43% of the UK vote. But the SNP actually won 45% of votes cast in Scotland. The 2021 Scottish general election then delivered another mandate for an independence referendum, with independence-supporting parties securing 48% of the vote.
Next election, Labour has a mountain to climb, but it may get enough votes to lead a minority government in the next Westminster Parliament. How would a Labour Government be able to argue that they have a democratic mandate but the SNP doesn’t? They will end up with a significantly lower vote share than the SNP.
Refusing a referendum under those conditions would suggest there is one law for Scotland and another law for the rest of the UK.
2 Refusing a referendum suggests Labour has abandoned its core values
The Labour Party often voices support for self-determination for people in other parts of the world. It is a basic democratic principle that the party has long signed up to. Why break that commitment when it comes to Scotland? What does that say about Labour values?
In the Good Friday Agreement, the UK Labour Government explicitly recognised the principle of self-determination for the people of Northern Ireland. A combination of the underlying demographic trends and the political fallout of Brexit means that a referendum is likely to be held there in the next five years and the agreement states that referendums may be held every seven years.
A decade has passed since the Edinburgh Agreement - why should Scotland have to wait so much longer?
3 Arguing that Scots don’t have a right to hold a referendum undermines the case for the Union
Even Margaret Thatcher said that all Scotland had to do if it wanted independence was to vote in a majority of SNP MPs. David Cameron also argued that the Union was voluntary and that the case for the Union was based on mutual respect.
That was the basis on which Scotland voted No in 2014. Of course, the day after the poll, Cameron went straight into campaigning for the 2015 general election. He announced that Scottish MPs would no longer be able to vote for most of any likely Labour agenda in Westminster under EVEL (English Votes for English Laws) - much to the Labour party’s chagrin. What would be the point of voting for a Scottish Labour MP under those conditions?
In that election campaign, the Conservatives then pursued a narrative of calling any progressive alliance involving the SNP “a coalition of chaos”. In 2015, the Labour Party allowed itself to be bullied into renouncing plans to cooperate. That is the playbook the Conservatives are still pursuing today and the trap that Labour are once again walking into.
Labour lost most of their Westminster seats back in 2015 - but they have stuck with the same policy. It still doesn’t make sense to many. Where does the Labour Party's opposition to a referendum under any circumstances say about the case for the Union?
It means that the basis of the 2014 Better Together campaign - that Scotland should vote to remain in a strong and successful - and voluntary - partnership has effectively been abandoned.
At the end of his warts and all account of the 2014 Better Together campaign ‘Project Fear’, political journalist Joe Pike concludes:
“A surprising number of pro-UK politicians and advisors I spoke to said something along the lines of: ‘There’s going to be a second Scottish independence referendum and we will lose it.’ “
Is the real reason that the Labour Party doesn't want to recognise the mandate for a referendum that they think Scots will vote for independence?
Has the Labour Party essentially given up on the possibility of getting more than a couple of MPs in Scotland ever again - and their current anti-Scotland rhetoric is intended just for voters in England?
Those are not good reasons. Pushing against a clear democratic mandate undermines their own position in the long term. The Labour Party should support the principles of democracy and self-determination, at home as well as abroad.