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Will Labour surrender in Scotland?

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard (left) with Jeremy Corbyn. Picture: PA/Gareth Fuller - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

The relationship between the SNP and Labour is one that will shape the future of both England and Scotland. Maurice Smith reports where the latest manoeuvres involving the parties will lead.

Kezia Dugdale, the former Scottish Labour leader, stood down from her post two summers ago, having failed to reverse the party’s calamitous decline at the hands of the Scottish National Party after the 2014 independence referendum.

Last week Dugdale, who had already signalled her early retirement from active politics when she stood down as a member of the Scottish Parliament in June, resigned from Labour itself, reportedly disgusted by the party’s pusillanimous approach to Brexit.

Her departure – accompanied by cat-calls from the left and a few nationalist sneers – surprised few observers. Although she was popular with the media, Dugdale’s political career ended with a whimper rather than a bang. The fate of her party, north of the border, may not be far behind.

It is one of the curious anomalies of British politics that Scottish Labour – for so long the powerhouse of the movement – is in such decline that the party hierarchy in London seems ready to abandon it in favour of a deal with the SNP.

The Corbyn leadership has calculated that its man in Scotland, Richard Leonard, cannot contribute anything meaningful towards a UK election victory, in terms of numbers of seats. Leonard is a Corbyn loyalist, installed as a replacement for Dugdale who was outspoken in her criticism of the Labour leader, and who had backed Yvette Cooper for the leadership in 2015.

Yet with their eyes on what the polls are saying about Scottish voting intentions, Corbyn strategists are flirting seriously with the idea of negotiating a deal with the SNP. Corbyn, or more accurately his shadow chancellor John McDonnell, has speculated publicly about a Labour government conceding a new independence referendum, presumably in exchange for SNP support in the Commons.

When the general election finally comes, the Tories will attempt to have a field day with that prospect. In 2015, even though Ed Miliband had refused to contemplate doing any deal with the SNP, the Conservatives ran a provocative series of campaign ads depicting the Labour leader in the pocket of the SNP’s Alex Salmond.

More than ever, the general election outcome will be all about Commons arithmetic. Labour seems deeply unlikely to achieve a majority, which means the party’s hopes of achieving power at Westminster depend either on a major Tory failure or on some form of support agreement with other parties.

But which other parties? The Democratic Unionists and Brexit Party are ideologically opposed to Labour and particularly the Corbyn leadership. The Liberal Democrats under Jo Swinson are taking a similar view, as borne out during recent chat about appointing an alternative prime minister to Boris Johnson to avert the October 31 Brexit deadline.

That leaves the SNP, Labour’s nemesis in Scotland. While the two rival parties claim a similar politics – although the left in Scotland demur at the SNP’s portrayal of itself as a progressive force in government – theirs has been a long and bitter relationship.

Much of the SNP’s progress since taking power in Scotland in 2007 has been at the expense of Labour. For two generations the relationship between the parties has been often vitriolic and always uneasy. To Labour loyalists the nationalists are “tartan Tories”, a soubriquet that dates back to the 1970s.

It was during the Thatcher and Major years that the SNP shifted leftwards and began to threaten the Labour hegemony.

Labour dominated Scottish politics throughout the 18 years of opposition preceding the Blair landslide of 1997. An energetic SNP targeted what it called Labour’s “feeble 50” MPs for supposedly failing to “defend” Scotland from Thatcherism. The mud stuck, at the time.

From the doorsteps during by-elections to the bitterly-contested election counts of central Scotland, the battle for votes became deeply personal, and often nasty. “Part of the problem is that there are people in both parties with long and bitter memories of the 1980s and 1990s,” says one trade unionist who campaigned for a Yes vote in the 2014 referendum.

“It is very difficult for people within the Scottish party to contemplate getting into bed with the SNP on anything really, and the referendum campaign didn’t help either.”

The SNP first stole Labour’s clothes way back in 1988, when Jim Sillars – a former Labour MP – took Glasgow Govan for the party in a famous by-election upset. It set the template for an SNP attack on the Labour heartlands for the following two decades.

Although the two sides set aside their differences, very briefly, for the devolution referendum of 1997 in order to ensure a Yes vote, the SNP returned to the attack after the Scottish parliament was created in 1999. For its first eight years, the parliament was run by Labour with Lib Dem support, on a system of proportional representation that was designed supposedly to ensure that no single party could gain an overall majority. But the SNP won power in 2007, earning that ‘impossible’ majority in 2011, and is in its third successive administration, this time with support from the Scottish Greens.

After the referendum failure in 2014, and Nicola Sturgeon’s ascendancy to the leadership, the SNP won a staggering 56 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats in 2015, dropping back to 35 two years later. Current polls estimate the party could win 50 or more seats in a general election. Several will be lost by the Tories, but the point is that few, if any, will go to Labour.

That makes the prospect of a deal tempting to the Labour leadership. On Sunday, ahead of the SNP’s conference in Aberdeen, Sturgeon ruled out a formal coalition with any Westminster party, but she did concede that some kind of confidence and supply arrangement could be made with Labour.

She added: “We would favour a progressive-type alliance, but I would say this to Jeremy Corbyn or any Westminster leader who’s looking to the SNP for support: If you don’t accept Scotland’s right to choose our own future, at the time of our own choosing, don’t even bother picking up the phone to me.”

Corbyn has said he is not keen on another Scottish referendum, but indicated recently that he may not stand in its way. McDonnell went further at the Edinburgh Festival in August, saying that if a majority of the Scottish parliament supported a second vote, Labour would not stand in the way.

His comments were seen as a testing of the water by the Labour leadership. It infuriated activists in Scotland who believe no deals should be contemplated with a party which has been ‘the enemy’ in Scotland for so long.

All this offers little comfort to Richard Leonard and his diminished band of party loyalists in Scotland. The rival party that dominates Scottish politics doing a deal with their own party to sustain a Labour government at Westminster?

Sturgeon’s price would be – at least – the granting of powers to hold a new independence referendum. A referendum which Scottish Labour is against, and one in which it says it would campaign for a No vote, as it did in 2014.

Sturgeon wants the power to call a referendum in late 2020. Her party faces Scottish elections in 2021. The Brexit vote did not prompt an immediate jump in support for Scottish independence, but it has witnessed a steady increase according to opinion polls. This weekend the Sunday Times published a survey showing support had reached 50%. Significantly, 45% of respondents said they believed an independent Scotland would be better off within the EU than it would be within a post-Brexit UK – compared to 35% who thought otherwise.

The economic question is thought to be the main barrier to SNP ambitions. Brexit presents the tantalising prospect of a major breakthrough to the party.

The means to achieving a second referendum may come via a deal with one of the party’s longest-standing bitter rivals.

For Labour, the obvious risk is that Scottish independence might condemn the party in England to near-permanent opposition, without Scottish votes. Labour strategists would have to convince themselves that once in power they can persuade England and Wales to elect a Labour majority in future elections… just as it did under Tony Blair in 1997, 2001 and 2005. Politics truly is a funny old game.

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