POLLS CAN DECEIVE. Polls for an election four years away, doubly so. Nonetheless, with all caveats, the Times/YouGov poll over the weekend deserves attention, if not for its headline grabber, a whopping 13 point Conservative lead over Labour, then at least for what it doesn’t say.
After the coronavirus, many optimistically predicted that Boris Johnson’s “Red Wall” hegemony would be swept away by waves of resistance. Working class voters, they clamed, would inevitably flock back to Labour, particularly with a competent, keenly patriotic new man in charge. The sort of man who has Three Lions on his Desert Island Discs playlist. However, Keir Starmer has been in charge for a year, and Labour is now back down at 32 percent, no better than their 2019 annus horribilis.
Among (occupationally defined) working class voters, the Conservatives command almost double Labour’s support (52% versus 27%). And UK voters overall have a significant preference for Boris Johnson (36%) over Starmer (28%), despite the latter’s liking for the Lightning Seeds. Labour continues to stack up voters in London, chichi tech towns and university areas. But that’s not a majority, especially with the UK’s unforgiving electoral system. The same old problems persist.
Starmer has followed all the precepts recommended by establishment pundits. He has smashed the Labour Left with a ruthlessness that would have given Tony Blair pause for thought, using precisely the pretexts the New Statesman recommended. He has waved the Union Jack with abandon. He has embraced every neo-imperial nostrum and slammed Black Lives Matter when even the world’s most vampiric corporations were embracing it. An editor at New Left Review may have called him a “rich man’s Nick Griffin”, but this was precisely what the centrists were asking for. A Europhile British chauvinist.
Equally, Starmer showed all the West Wing, aisle-crossing canniness that pundits love, by opposing Tory economic policies from the right. And, most of all, he has presented a suited, booted, coiffed image. Not a donkey jacket or an anorak in sight.
Despite all this heroic endeavour, Labour has not progressed, and questions surely follow. Naturally, the Conservatives are receiving a temporary boost due to the popularity of vaccinations and the budget. Naturally, everything can change. Naturally, the Tories might do something stupid. But the sensible gambler would not put money on Starmer being Britain’s next Prime Minister. Which is another way of saying that Boris Johnson may be ruling us for a decade or more.
Ahead of Scotland’s election, Conservative support has varied between 19 percent and 23 percent. And this hints at our problem. All things remaining equal, the Cameron-May-Johnson era will last longer than its Thatcher-Major predecessor. Scotland is being shaped by Governments it doesn’t vote for; and Labour’s promises of “progressive federalism” look emptier and emptier.
In this sense, the negative case for independence is only growing.
But our problem is precisely too much negativity. The SNP leadership has spent years bemoaning Westminster, Brexit and the rest. But they’ve done precious little to explain why independence matters and what power, accountability and self-rule means in practice. Labour aren’t coming to Scotland’s rescue; nor, I’m afraid, are this incumbent Scottish Government. The next term must be defined by extraparliamentary organisation, or this noose will only tighten.