IN BRUTAL SUMMARY, last week’s Scottish elections reproduced the status quo intact. Astonishingly, given the crises of the past five years, no party gained or lost more than two seats. By contrast, events in England were further evidence that the UK now has four national cultures governed by distinct political rhythms. These results were intriguing and probably tell us more about the impending prospect of a “breakup of Britain”.
In fairness to Labour, their troubles are not for want of trying. Keir Starmer has purged Jeremy Corbyn and his cohort; waved more flags than a North Korean procession; and touted his “non-negotiable” support for nuclear weapons. But under Starmer’s watch, Labour lost Hartlepool for the first time since the seat’s creation, in a defeat even more punishing than pessimists had predicted. Results were similarly disastrous across the so-called Red Wall seats. All of this, remember, amid a succession of Tory sleaze scandals.
The conclusion probably should have been obvious from the start. Starmer, a Europhile lawyer in a London seat, has compounded Labour’s problem of stacking up majorities in major cities while failing to compete in towns and cities without a university presence.
Despite the softest of soft-soapings from the press, Starmer’s net popularity with the public stands at -48. Jeremy Corbyn was treated with near perpetual hostility, both by red top tabloids and by virtue signallers in the broadsheets; even so, his popularity at the equivalent stage was higher than Starmer’s. Corbyn, for his faults, was a wildly successful mobiliser; there is no such redeeming minority ready to fight for Sir Keir. Thus, while Corbyn brought Labour within touching distance of the Conservatives in 2017, under Starmer any such prospect looks vanishingly small.
For the likes of Peter Mandelson, Labour can restore its electoral health by continuing its journey to the right. One could not find a neater illustration of Marx’s dictum that history repeats itself the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. There is no Blairite “Third Way” here. Economically, Labour is being outflanked from the left – by the Conservatives. Socially and culturally, Labour is alienating not just leftists but also soft liberals with its authoritarian and nationalist rhetoric: this group, which is increasingly Labour’s real “heartland”, is gravitating towards the Greens.
It’s rather too easy to blame this on Brexit. The deeper problem is how Brexit interacted with a longstanding sense that all factions of Labour, centrist or leftist, don’t like the party’s traditional voters. For that reason, Labour has being building a new political base that better reflects its members’ economic circumstances and cultural mores: the professional managerial class, downwardly mobile graduates, and big city-dwellers. But that base is both too small and too demanding to win elections in England. Nobody has found a way to square this circle.
All of which matters for Scotland. The most enduring argument for independence is the question of the democratic deficit. Scotland is ruled by Conservative governments voted for by only a slim minority of Scottish voters. They control foreign policy, war-making, immigration, labour laws, much of the welfare system, and the institutional controls over all key Scottish industries, such as energy and financial services. Public service delivery is mostly Edinburgh’s business; but the core functions of a nation state are under Westminster’s command, with almost no Scottish democratic input.
Positive arguments against independence tend to imagine some alternative to Conservative rule. A Labour-led coalition in Westminster, delegating more powers to Edinburgh as part of a “progressive federalist” agenda. But, leaving aside all other flaws in this plan, it makes the assumption that Labour can successfully mobilise English voters behind its agenda. And that looks increasingly dubious.
All of which explains the curious phenomenon of Anas Sarwar. Likeable, centrist and (to borrow Holyrood’s buzzword of the moment) “diverse”, he seemed like a winner, in purely electoral terms. But he was last week’s big loser, while the Scottish Conservatives, led by the whining, misfiring Douglas Ross, shored up their base.
Sarwar’s problem is institutional: voters cannot see any Labour Party story with a happy ending; while at least the Tories have a clear pitch of stopping independence. Their happy ending is the status quo. Unelectable in England, Labour has little to offer in Scotland. And that’s the reason independence will continue to dominate our politics, regardless of what the SNP-Green leadership chooses to do.