Alasdair Clark: Labour should cautiously engage with Nicola Sturgeon on devo powers

Ben Wray

Alasdair Clark (@alasdair_clark), freelance journalist, says that the First Minister’s speech on Scotland’s constitutional future could provide Scottish Labour an opportunity to show its learned from past mistakes

WEDNESDAY’S speech from Nicola Sturgeon was perfectly designed by the First Minister; it will broadly appeal to her own base and challenge her opposition home and away.

Sturgeon was never going to fully satisfy those whose hashtag is #DissolveTheUnion. She calculated her political capital and spent wisely.

At home, she will pursue an SNP argument for independence, bearing in mind the significant hurdles her political aims still face, not least the legal basis for a second referendum. 

However, most wisely, Sturgeon placed on the agenda a challenge to her opposition, most notably Scottish Labour. 

The Scottish Conservatives are gifted with the ability to maintain their base of support by objecting completely to indyref2, but this strategy failed completely when it was pursued by former Labour leader Kezia Dugdale.

READ MORE: Nicola Sturgeon seeks indyref2 before 2021, while holding out further devolution olive branch to opponents

Scottish Labour insiders have largely agreed this privately, and Richard Leonard has attempted to oppose the SNP on policy grounds and put forward alternatives, such as his recent announcement backing free, publicly owned bus travel. 

His team also haven’t hid from questions about devolution either, and senior MSPs have openly argued for the further devolution of powers such as employment law as well as the transfer of power away from central government. 

Broadly discussing federalism, the party is some way down the road to agreeing a set of tangible proposals. Something that might always fail to win over those convinced of independence, but could well win support from enough soft Yes supporters. 

READ MORE: Analysis: Sturgeon’s indyref2 plan ticks political boxes – but is it an effective strategy for indy?

In this spirit, Richard Leonard should engage cautiously with Nicola Sturgeon and her proposed conversation on the constitutional settlement. 

Not to do so falls into the trap the SNP leader has set for her opposition; she can appear conciliatory and ready to lead Scotland in whatever direction it chooses. 

Scottish Labour could revert to Plan A, spending the rest of this parliament opposing a second referendum and leaving little room for much else whilst playing to the SNP’s agenda rather than writing their own.

READ MORE: Analysis: Leonard brings Scottish Labour full circle on employment law – begrudgingly

The citizens’ assembly provides a novel way for a developed and meaningful conversation about Scotland’s future, and their process should be given the best chance to succeed by all sides. 

And if Labour are serious about opposing independence, then relying on a constitutional deal carved up by a few politicians and an unelected Lord is the least best way to do so. 

To coin a phrase, Nicola Sturgeon has left the door open to settle the country’s constitutional future for a generation. 

Picture courtesy of Scottish Labour

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