Good news, Scottish Labour – your eight years in the wilderness are about to come to an end.
Jeremy Corbyn has been elected leader of the UK party and as his Scottish boosters assured us during the campaign his anti-austerity agenda is poised to return Scotland to the Labour fold. The SNP was swept to 56 MPs on a wave of left-wing optimism and a populist Labour Party would replicate this success across the UK, including north of the border.
McCorbynites were encouraged in this analysis by the radical edges of the nationalist movement, which strive still to present the past year as a social democratic mahapach.
So it’s a good day for Scottish Labour, which can expect a membership surge from all those people who are definitely not nationalists and only joined the SNP because it was more left-of-centre. And if Labour in Scotland takes its orders from the UK leader, as we are regularly told, Kezia Dugdale’s own views shouldn’t matter. Scottish Labour is a Corbynite party now.
Safe to say the phones aren’t ringing out on Bath Street.
The reorientation of Scottish politics since the referendum has been towards nationalism, not a revived 1970s-style socialism. Nicola Sturgeon talks the talk but when it comes to governing at Holyrood, her party has stuck rigidly to the centre ground. Tory-bashing rhetoric for the grassroots, tax breaks for business and middle class families.
We shouldn’t begrudge the SNP its posturing and positioning – that’s what political parties do – but now they are faced with an opportunity they could hardly have imagined a year ago. The Labour Party has abandoned the mainstream and left an opening for a serious and conscientious opposition to the Conservative government. Despite its relatively modest parliamentary strength, the SNP has the potential to fill that role more effectively than a divided and out-of-touch Labour Party.
True there are some Nationalist MPs who make stocks in Thorazine a sound investment but every party has its fringe-dwellers. On the frontbenches and backbenches of the SNP, they are outnumbered by bright and talented parliamentarians from Brendan O’Hara to Stewart McDonald, Joanna Cherry to Stephen Gethins and more besides.
Angus Robertson, SNP leader in the House of Commons, is a man of substance and a gifted politician who can prosecute a compassionate, left-of-centre case against the Conservatives. It is not difficult to imagine him becoming a more articulate critic of government policy than the new leader of the opposition. He has hinted at this in his consistent critiquing of the Prime Minister’s stance on refugees and there is scope to widen this to the economy, foreign policy, and security.
There is a moderate-left position that believes in enterprise and growth but also wants to protect the social safety net; that challenges the cost and value of Trident but wants strong conventional defences; that favours greater reform in international institutions but is unapologetically pro-European and pro-Nato. The Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn cannot represent these people but, with some modulation, more nuance, and a hushing of the shouty people, the SNP could begin to claim this mantle.
It wouldn’t be easy. The SNP is a Scottish party and many in England are still suspicious of its intentions; for all Nicola Sturgeon’s protestations, the Nationalist surge undoubtedly helped the Conservatives in May. It would have to tread carefully on devolved matters but there is no reason it should shy away from working with trade unions, charities and civic society in England to hold ministers to account on areas like health and education.
The Nationalists have a chance to show Liberal England and Middle England what they really are, neither a kilted clanjamfrie of Bannockburn re-enactors nor the Socialist Workers Party with more electoral nous. Left-leaning voters will appreciate the solidarity and come to recognise the SNP as partners in certain areas. Floating voters in Nuneaton aren’t likely to agree with them on much but they might be less inclined to vote Tory out of fear of the SNP. (The Labour Party will provide the terror all on its own next time.)
And in return they will get independence. Scotland is already on the tipping point and a generation of Tory governments delivered by an unelectable Labour Party will give voters the final shove they need. But by working constructively within the Union in its final years, the SNP will reap real rewards. The eventual separation would be less acrimonious, progressive English opinion less uniformly hostile. The next five years, or however long Jeremy Corbyn lasts in the job, allow the SNP to set out its stall for an independent Scotland that is a friend and ally to the remaining UK.
The party that was supposedly heading to Westminster to wreck the joint could be the best thing that’s happened to parliamentary politics in a long time. It would take hard work and a genuine political will but Labour’s self-injury paves the way for the SNP to become the unofficial opposition.