There’s delusion, and there’s Labour in Scotland delusion. On Wednesday in the Guardian Katherine Sangster, the national manager for Scottish Fabian and a former Labour Holyrood candidate, penned an article optimistically, or you might more accurately say misleadingly, entitled “This is how Labour can win back Scotland – and achieve a majority UK government.” Link here: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/mar/29/this-is-how-labour-can-win-back-scotland-and-achieve-a-majority-uk-government
The piece was subtitled : “With the SNP vulnerable and the union debate stalled, Labour could succeed in Scotland, but it must offer the change people crave.” The piece then went on to fail to say what that ‘change’ might be. Notably it failed to construct a cohesive argument even on its own terms. Sangster noted that Labour could only hope to take at the very most four Scottish Westminster seats from the Conservatives and so must target SNP seats if it hopes to win a majority in the Commons. However seats won by the SNP are seats which also help to deprive the Conservatives of a majority in the Commons. It could be argued that from a Scottish perspective the best outcome at the next UK General Election would be for the Conservatives to lose their majority but for Labour to rely on some deal, tacit or formal, with the SNP in order to form a majority.
We all ought to have plenty experience by now in seeing what happens when a British party achieves an absolute majority at Westminster, English political concerns become paramount and Scotland’s interests are at best marginalised or at worst actively treated with contempt. A Westminster majority for Keir Starmer who pays lip service to the notion of the United Kingdom as a voluntary union of nations even as he denies Scottish democracy and refuses to specify what the democratic route to another independence referendum might be, disingenuously asserting that it’s for those who want to ‘break up the UK’ to set this out.
That’s despite the fact that the pro-independence parties had already operated on the transparently democratic principle that such a route consisted of the pro-independence parties winning a majority in the Scottish Parliament after an election in which a pledge to hold an independence referendum was prominent in their manifestos. However as we all know, when the pro-independence parties did just that, all of a sudden it’s not good enough for Keir Starmer who has shifted the goalposts and invites us to guess where he’s put them now without giving any clues. Which terribly conveniently for Keir means that he can triumphantly proclaim : “No, that’s not it!” should independence supporters labour [pun intended] under the misapprehension that they have demonstrated a democratic mandate for another independence referendum in some other way.
This is profoundly cynical and deeply undemocratic, particularly coming as it does from a man who tells us his mission is to restore integrity and trust in Westminster politics. It was telling that Katherine Sangster does not spell out a route that might be acceptable to Labour, confining herself to saying that Labour must must “avoid the ‘no compromise’ unionism versus independence stances that the SNP and Tories are locked into,” as thought there is a moral equivalence between those who believe in democracy and those who seek to thwart it. Yet she is talking here about a Labour party in Scotland which has been captured by the ‘no-compromise unionism’ of Anas Sarwar, Ian Murray and Jackie Baillie as comprehensively as the Conservatives have been captured by the Brextremist right.
Labour in Scotland is a party which rejects potential candidates deemed to have been ‘tainted’ by sympathies for independence yet has no problem at all with candidates who once occupied senior positions in the Orange Order. That looks very much like ‘no-compromise’ unionism from where this SNP voting former Labour supporter is sitting. Scotland ditched Labour primarily for being too right wing with Reeves, Cooper, Miliband et al in 2015. So which bit of the even more right wing offering now on the table do Labour commentators think is going to appeal to Scotland?
The basic problem for a Labour party in Scotland which seeks to capitalise on the recent turbulence within the SNP and capture votes from disaffected SNP supporters is that much of the dissatisfaction is found amongst SNP voters who feel that the party has not made sufficient progress in attaining Scottish independence, key reasons for which is that it would not only guarantee that Scotland always gets the governments that it votes for, but would also offer the opportunity of a much closer relationship with the European Union and the chance to visit the question of the monarchy. The question which Sangster does not engage with, is that the ‘change’ that Labour offers does not include change in any of these areas.
An opinion poll published on 30 March 2025 found that a mere 14% of people in Scotland are happy that the UK has left the EU and shows a stark division in opinions on Europe between Scotland and the rest of the UK ,yet under Starmer Labour has not only rejected another referendum on EU membership, it has also set its face against rejoining the Single Market and the Customs Union. Labour is as monarchist and as pro-Brexit as the Tories and even a majority Labour government would merely mean a respite from a Conservative government that Scotland did not vote for. The electoral pendulum in England will eventually swing back to the Tories, who will then set about trying to undo everything that Labour had done during its time in office.
Despite Starmer’s lip service to Scotland, Scottish votes can only make a difference when political opinions in England are pretty evenly divided. England always gets the governments that it votes for. UK General Elections are won or lost in England, indeed due to the unfair first past the post system which Labour has no plans to change they are won or lost in a very small slice of English political opinion. The slice which Labour is aiming its pitch at consists of Brexit supporting voters in the so-called ‘red wall’ seats in the Midlands and North of England. Scotland is merely a by-stander. Labour has committed to full on English nationalism as much as the Tories have.
The real challenge for Labour in Scotland is to prove that it values Scotland as much more than as a prop for its English ambitions, because most voters in Scotland, certainly those sympathetic to independence rightfully believe that it doesn’t. There is absolutely nothing in Katherine Sangster’s piece or anything issuing from the mouth of Anas Sarwar, to change anyone’s mind on that. Tell you what Labour, commit to the devolution of broadcasting, the abolition of the House of Lords, to a proportional voting system for UK General Elections, and to giving the Scottish Parliament the power to hold another independence referendum, and if Scotland still votes against independence, then maybe, just maybe, we can talk about voting Labour again.
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