THE CONSERVATIVES ATTRACT around one in five Scottish voters, yet they continue to make the central decisions over the economy and foreign policy, as they have done for the last eleven years. So, the case for Scotland remaining in the Union will partly depend on the credibility of Westminster’s opposition. Can we even imagine a non-Conservative government?
Sir Keir Starmer was supposedly brought in to solve that problem. As he approaches his first anniversary as Labour leader, prospects of a viable “Unionist” coalition rest on his shoulders, given that the Conservatives are largely an English-oriented party (even the Scottish Conservatives are a different, liberal beast). However, polls this month have shown Tory leads above 10 percent.
The evidence also suggests that Starmer’s much-vaunted charisma has made little impression outside of media bubbles. YouGov polling shows public opinion turning against Starmer on all attributes: just 22 percent see him as strong (down 8 points since January); 25 percent as decisive (-8); 26 percent as trustworthy (-3); 29 percent as likeable (-7); 35 percent as competent (-7). Boris Johnson is hardly the affable quiz show host of old: he looks like a husk of a man. But his net favourability now easily beats Starmer’s.
Naturally, it is far too early to judge who will win the next Westminster election. But what can be concluded is that Labour’s purge of the left and turn back to the centre has not delivered the expected results. All the Union Jack bunting in the world hasn’t served to make them electable.
The old guard are getting their excuses in early. Lord Mandelson continues to blame the Left, suggesting that Sir Keir “still has the 2019 manifesto around his neck”. This is surely implausible: any “radicalism” in Corbyn’s manifesto has been long eclipsed by Rishi Sunak’s spending on the pandemic. If anything, Starmer has been wrongfooted by Conservatives willing to outflank him from the left. Sunak, incidentally, is the UK’s most popular politician, with a net favourability of +11, a full 29 points better than Starmer.
If Starmer has a proverbial albatross, it’s his role supporting Mandelson on the People’s Vote. This pins him on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, Europhilia isn’t a popular look outside of Scotland and leafy London: 50 percent hold an unfavourable view of the EU; just 35 percent are favourable. On the other hand, Starmer has overcompensated with an aggressive turn to “patriotism”, which only serves to alienate left-liberal voters who are drifting towards the Greens, the SNP or the Lib Dems.
These stakes will undoubtedly shape attitudes to Scottish independence. The prospect of endless Tory rule has always been the chief recruiting sergeant to the Yes cause. A positive alternative that addresses the challenges of the pandemic – we are still waiting for a follow up to the discredited Growth Commission – would likely have mass credibility.
Equally, Labourist alternatives to independence are unlikely to pass through Conservative parliaments. “Progressive federalism” will suffer from a glaring agency gap unless Starmer looks like a viable Prime Minister. Which only reinforces the central point: that the case for independence is about the democratic deficit and the institutional collapse of Labourism, not about how many powers are transferred to the Edinburgh parliament.