Sketch: Scottish Labour's constitutional contortions

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 5 October 2018 in Comment

Labour's plan to decide "at the time" whether to allow indyref2 is undermined by the fact it has already decided

Image credit: Iain Green

Jeremy Corbyn may allow Scotland to have a second referendum on Scottish independence, but it depends what he has on that day. He’s not against it in principle, you understand, it’s just really hard to plan ahead.

That, genuinely, is Labour’s current policy. Or it is at the time of writing anyway, because obviously it could have changed at any point. Even in the course of this sentence.

If you’re confused by any of this – and you have a right to be – the rollercoaster ride which constitutes Labour’s position on Scottish independence began with an interview the Labour leader did with BBC Scotland.

Now before going any further, it’s worth stating that he may not have planned his response beforehand. He may have been caught out by the idea that the biggest broadcaster in Scotland would raise the single biggest issue to dominate Scottish politics over the last four or five years.

And it started well enough, with Corbyn suggesting “we don’t think it’s a good idea” to hold a second referendum. Fair enough.

It was after that the curve ball came, apparently entirely out of the blue. What would he do if Nicola Sturgeon pushed for one when he was Prime Minister?

So what would he do? Would he allow it? He was very clear. “We would obviously decide at the time.”

Decide at the time. It was wonderful stuff. What would the decision depend on? His mood? On how his allotment was getting on? It takes about nine months to organise an independence referendum, you can’t just hold a quick one between making batches of jam.

Actually, the most interesting bit of the sentence is the use of the word ‘obviously’. After all, anyone could suggest their response to the most significant constitutional event in the UK’s history would be to just wing it on the day, but it takes a special sort of confidence to imagine that should be obvious to everyone else.

But then why wouldn’t it be? Winging it won him two leadership elections, who’s to say it wouldn’t steer him through a constitutional crisis based around the prospect of breaking up a 300-year-old union. Nothing. You do you, Jeremy.

And to be fair, it’s actually a very difficult strategy to counter. You know where you are with Theresa May’s intransigence, but how can an SNP strategist possibly plan against a response that will vary with the weather?

Even now senior figures are probably sitting around a table, dejected, trying to predict what possible effect a potential cold snap, or a surprise football result, could have on the Labour leader’s decision-making.

And for a while that was fine, up until an intervention from Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard complicated matters. As he put it, apparently finessing Corbyn’s point: “I can make clear today that the next Labour manifesto will oppose another independence referendum.”

Can you definitely make it clear though, Richard? How can Labour’s policy be to “decide at the time” if it’s already decided? Was he saying Labour would decide at the time, and that decision would be to refuse one?

Expanding, Leonard explained, “There is no case for a second independence referendum,” which is an argument you can really only make if you ignore the parliamentary mandate for one.

But there wasn’t much more time to get to grips with the stance, because, apparently satisfied with the mess they‘d made, the party’s leadership then decided to apply the same approach to calls for a second EU referendum.

First, John McDonnell went on Radio 4 to back a second vote, but not with an option of remaining in the EU. “The issue now is that, if we are going to respect the last referendum, it will be about the deal, it will be a negotiation on the deal,” he said.

It was unclear how exactly that would work, to be honest, but at least the shadow chancellor was being clear: the 2016 result must be respected and there would be no option of remaining in the EU.

Next, Keir Starmer moved to clarify. As he said: “Nobody is ruling out Remain as an option.” Well, no one except the shadow chancellor, who had said the exact opposite about 24 hours earlier.

So yes, it’s confusing. To recap: Labour supports a second referendum on the EU, even though there’s no parliamentary mandate for one, but opposes a second vote on independence, despite the parliamentary majority for it.

But still, no one had agreed what a second EU referendum would actually ask. So it was lucky Stella Creasy waded in. As she suggested: “I actually don’t think any politician should set the questions.” Indeed, probably not. In fact, it was starting to appear questionable if they should suggest the answers.

But how would we decide what would be on the ballot? For Creasy, the answer was some kind of ‘citizens’ assembly’, which is probably a good idea, even if the name could use some work. After all, what we really need is some sort of mechanism for taking the public will and using it to inform policy. Some sort of institution, perhaps, which could perform the same role as a ‘citizens’ assembly’. We could call it a ‘parliament’, for example.

But maybe that doesn’t appeal. Maybe if we filled a building with people tasked with representing different areas and divergent political interests it would just descend into pathetic bickering.

In that instance, another option would be to have some sort of UK-wide vote to decide what to include in a referendum. We could use a referendum to do it, then once the referendum decided what to include in the referendum, we would hold a referendum on whether to proceed and hold a referendum.

The one remaining question is what Leonard makes of the UK party’s approach – though of course, the question of a second independence referendum is really only relevant if Corbyn becomes PM. If that day comes, Leonard can just decide at the time.

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