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by James Mitchell
05 August 2021
Comment: Keir Starmer's Scottish problem

Comment: Keir Starmer's Scottish problem

Would Keir Starmer do a deal with the SNP to enter Downing Street after the next election? 

That question has come to haunt Labour, fearful of the Tories presenting Nicola Sturgeon pulling Labour’s strings. 

Reports that the Tories are plotting to stoke fears of a Labour-SNP pact have recently been reported. Images from recent elections are likely to be resurrected with Labour’s new leader as the puppet or in the SNP pocket. Keir Starmer was inevitably asked about this on his visit to Scotland. 

The Tory strategy is designed to strike fear in the English electorate.  But there has been debate on the nature and extent of its impact. 

Some survey data found no evidence of the strategy having had an impact on the outcome of the 2015 election, while Philip Cowley and Dennis Kavanagh’s 2015 election study found ample evidence that Labour and Tory party strategists had no doubt that there was an ‘SNP effect’ in England.

The impact may have been indirect, putting Labour on the defensive, subverting its campaign.  It may have played well because of a belief that Ed Miliband was weak. 

And there was the perception, likely to be at least as strong at the next election, that Labour’s best prospect lay in forming a minority or coalition government with an overall majority seeming a very distant prospect. 

To what extent is this a problem for Labour?

It says much about mutual myths and misunderstandings in Scotland and England that Sturgeon’s SNP can be portrayed as some wild, radical party intent on spreading chaos and misery across England. 

This sits uneasily with the timid party desperately seeking establishment status that governs Scotland. 

But the undigested diet of baloney fed to the English electorate is not so different from the absurd caricature of the English electorate as Nigel Farage’s fan club. 

A higher proportion of voters were against Brexit in England in 2016 than voted for independence in Scotland in 2014. 

And opinion has shifted against Brexit in England at least as much as against the union in Scotland.  The vital difference is that independence has a strong champion in Scotland but no party champions the case for EU membership in England.

The SNP and Tories feed these misconceptions as part of their mutual strategy of polarisation. 

Impressions and perceptions, however fanciful, are important and will be played up when it suits. And what matters is that enough people believe the myths and misunderstandings.

Will Keir Starmer will fall victim to these myths and misunderstandings? 

So long as enough English voters believe that the Labour leader will be at the mercy of a group of SNP MPs then he has a problem.

The notion that Starmer would be at the mercy of the SNP shows little understanding of Scottish politics. The SNP replaced Labour as Scotland’s dominant party in large part because it was seen as the most effective opponent of the Tories. 

Support for independence is now built almost entirely on an anti-Tory platform.  That would collapse if the SNP let the Tories in again. 

The extraordinary rise of the SNP came at Labour’s expense and it is not difficult to imagine these votes moving back en masse to Labour at the hint of an SNP-Tory deal or the SNP blocking Labour forming a government in London.

Scotland, we should never forget, has a majority of voters who are small ‘c’ conservatives who strongly dislike capital ‘C’ Conservatives.  This is the essential paradox of Scottish politics. 

It explains the SNP’s electoral success but also its timidity.  The Scottish Tories have abjectly failed to convert conservatives into Conservatives but then they have not really tried. 

And neither the SNP nor Labour has done much to convert anti-Conservative voters into a radical force for change, though again neither has really tried.

In the past when there was a prospect of a hung parliament – as in 1992 – the SNP knew that it had little choice but to support a Labour government if it found itself in a pivotal position. 

Its leadership knew that it had no real leverage and that there was no point in making unrealistic or unreasonable demands.  Having more MPs alters the arithmetic but does not change the fundamental problem for the SNP.

Would the SNP really allow Boris Johnson or some other Tory to remain in power?  What leverage would they have?  Threaten to support the Tories and experience the wrath of anti-Conservative Scotland? 

It took almost 40 years for the SNP to exorcise the ghost of 1979 when SNP MPs failed to support the Callaghan government in a vote of confidence. 

Labour would likely exorcise the ghost of 2014 when it joined forces with the Tories to campaign against independence if the SNP failed to support a Starmer government. 

Refusing Labour the ‘opportunity to serve’ would be worse than bringing down a Labour government.  Abstaining would have same effect but with added contempt.  If another general election followed immediately, Keir Starmer would likely not need the support of SNP MPs as many Scottish voters returned to Labour.

Ruling out a deal with the SNP makes sense for Labour but will not be enough.  Starmer needs to convince English voters that he is serious. 

Labour also needs to call the SNP’s bluff on a hung parliament and that is a job for Anas Sarwar.  The cost to Labour of SNP support would be meagre.  Withholding support for a Labour government would be extremely costly for the SNP.

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