Only a bold democratic programme can stop Starmer becoming Labour’s third leader to be squeezed in the war of English and Scottish nationalisms

(Now published on openDemocracy)

As Keir Starmer prepares for Labour’s 2020 conference he has almost closed the gap with the Tories in the polls and is ahead of Boris Johnson as ‘best prime minister’. He is currently visiting Scotland – where Labour is still very weak – and writes in The Scotsman that ‘the number one priority for governments across the United Kingdom must be protecting people’s lives and livelihoods. Yet in the middle of a global pandemic, the Tories are still banging on about Brexit and the SNP, by their own admission, are still prioritising independence. Rather than acknowledging the deep problems with their response to the virus, like the current testing fiasco or the crisis in our care homes, they are dodging blame and attacking each other.’

Starmer offers a gentle rebuke to the Scottish Conservatives for ‘refusing to stand up to Johnson as he backtracks on his own Brexit deal’, but otherwise is silent about the PM’s ferocious nationalist assault on the EU. Starmer’s calculation appears to be that he should pull in support from both sides of the UK’s and Scotland’s constitutional divides, and avoid Johnson’s provocations.

The twin-nationalist threat in the crucial 2021 elections

Yet in his attacks on the EU, Johnson is also already fighting the battle to stop a new independence referendum – as well as the 2024 general election – by painting the SNP, alongside Labour, as siding with the EU. So before long Johnson’s banging on about Brexit and Nicola Sturgeon’s about independence will require responses from Starmer. Brexit may be ‘done’ but it is far from over, and the issue of Indyref2 is rising inexorably up the agenda. With the crucial Holyrood elections taking place alongside English mayoral and local elections next spring, the Tories will only ramp up their British-English nationalism to cover their disastrous health and economic records.

One of this week’s Tory attack ads – expect the same over Scotland as Indyref2 rises up the agenda

In these circumstances, Labour could easily be squeezed by the nationalist constitutional agendas of its two main rivals, with serious consequences in England as well as Scotland. This is essentially what happened to Jeremy Corbyn over Brexit in 2019, and indeed to Ed Miliband in 2015, when David Cameron and Lynton Crosby exploited a perceived link of Labour with the SNP to obtain their unexpected majority. Bang on about health and the economy instead? Miliband and Corbyn both tried it, and look at the results.  

Starmer should beware the tendency, revived by the authoritative Left Out account of Corbyn’s leadership between 2017 and 2019, to believe that a combination of his and his allies’ personal and political failings derailed hopes of further progress on his socialist agenda. The book’s starting-point is misleading: by 2017 Brexit already defined politics in the UK, and while Corbyn navigated its currents successfully at that moment, the basis for his later disastrous failure to do so had been thoroughly prepared by his weaknesses during and after the 2016 referendum. Indeed when he became leader, Corbyn was already lumbered with the consequences of Labour’s failed responses to the threats from the independence surge in Scotland and to UKIP, which led to Brexit. 

Labour’s fatal mistake in the last decade has been its assumption that a progressive social and economic agenda is not only necessary, but also largely sufficient, for electoral success. Yet while many of both Miliband’s and Corbyn’s policies were popular, in the elections of 2015 and 2019 and of course the 2016 referendum, they were ultimately eclipsed by their opponents’ nationalist agendas. 2017 is not really an exception: Labour’s relative success was not just due to its social agenda, but owed much to Remainers swinging behind Corbyn because they believed he offered a better answer to Brexit. By 2019 many no longer believed this, and swung to the Lib Dems, Greens, SNP and even the Tories, while the latter hoovered up many Labour Leavers.

So Starmer has inherited a situation in which the entwined constitutional questions of Brexit and Scottish independence, and the different but complementary nationalisms which lie behind them, have already helped break two Labour leaders. What does he need to do to avoid a third failure, which could contribute to an even more decisive weakening of Labour and end to any hope of progress within the framework of the British state?

Scottish independence threatens a Brexit-style crisis

Left-wing and Remainer commentators tend to see the questions of Scotland and Brexit as very different, which in one sense is obviously true. In principle, Scottish independence offers a progressive prospect: a compact liberal, social-democratic nation-state within a Europe of nations. The Scottish National Party government and its first minister Nicola Sturgeon offer a similar contrast in leadership vis-a-vis Johnson’s right-wing racist populism to the one which Starmer himself proposes. It is not hard to see why their independence agenda is increasingly attractive to Scottish voters and is winning sympathy in England.

Yet despite its different ideological roots, Scottish independence has come to fore in the same UK and European context as Brexit, and threatens to cause the same kinds of problem. It is not obvious why breaking up a 313-year-old union should be easier than dissolving one of 47 years. It will involve the same complex unravelling, but without the equivalent of Article 50, the framework for the process will be even more contested between the rump UK and Scottish governments.

Moreover, pro-independence forces have not found convincing solutions to their three biggest obstacles: the currency of the new state; the mode of its re-entry into the EU; and a fiscal deficit exacerbated by declining oil revenues. In addition, since the UK has now left the EU, Scottish membership would now create a hard border at Berwick-on-Tweed.

On top of this, like the Brexiters the SNP are aiming for independence without a strong consensus in society. A 55 per cent pro-independence majority in some polls is hailed as a major advance, but like their English counterparts the nationalists will claim even 52 or 50.1 per cent as legitimation. But we have see with Brexit how a tiny majority for secession is a recipe for new polarisation, which hugely complicates the process and poisons society.

Even if the SNP had a radical programme for independence, the process of obtaining independence following a successful vote would consume them for years, as it has the Brexiters. Since the SNP has signed up to maintaining popular British institutions – the monarchy, the army, the NHS, the BBC – in new Scottish forms and has so far not fully utilised even its existing fiscal autonomy, it is likely that independence will be largely a symbolic success. 

The political costs, on the other hand, will be anything but minimal. Johnson’s current aggression against the EU is a reliable indicator of how he will fight – with the support of the tabloids – to prevent a new independence referendum, against the independence case if a vote has to be held, and to tar anyone who is not 100 per cent with him as a traitor to the English-British nationalist cause. This will be powerful ammunition for Sturgeon and could well radicalise the wider nationalist movement in unpredictable directions, as the Brexiters have radicalised, which in turn will feed the Tory case.

Labour’s only hope is ambitious democratic reform of the UK state

The lesson from 2015, 2016 and 2019 is that without attractive, coherent answers to the big constitutional questions, Labour cannot hope to compete with the Tories and the SNP when the chips are down. In this kind of polarisation, Labour could not only be wiped out even more comprehensively in Scotland, but also be forced backwards in England and Wales in 2024 – and possibly as early as 2021. 

Given how the Brexitised Conservative Party and the SNP have both consolidated their bases in recent years, Labour faces a formidable task in trying to shift the agenda around Scottish independence on either side of the border. It may already be too late. But any hope of avoiding another five years of Brexit-style regression depends on doing so.

Labour will not advance by tacking individual constitutional reforms on to a message which is largely focused on the economy and health. Only a clear, bold and consistently repeated case for democratic reform across the UK, equally prioritised and synchronised with the case for economic and social justice, has any chance of making an impact on the entrenched rival nationalisms.

Without ambitious proposals to remake the UK as a whole, Labour has no chance of convincing Scottish voters. Extra devolution for Scotland, while English corruption remains intact, will not be a meaningful offer. Pro-independence voters, who increasingly include Remainers, have sussed that the UK is a deeply flawed democracy, as have most non-Tories in England. Labour leads to learn from its experience under Blair: democratising Scotland but not England, as it did in the late 1990s, was not enough, and only exacerbated the tensions within the Union.

Indeed the structures of English corruption have only become more entrenched in recent years, as they have been harnessed to Johnson-Cummings’ elective dictatorship. The winner-take-all voting system in the House of Commons, the House of Cronies and Residual Hereditaries (even if they occasionally provide a minimal check on Tory excesses), the hollowing out of English local government, the ever-more aggressive populism of the tabloid press, and the ever-closer merger of the Tory party with the shady world of property developers, hedge funds, offshore and Putin oligarchs, constitute a formidably compromised political framework for British society. As the regime starts to clear away legal as well as social protections, protect democracy and citizens’ rights pose a comprehensive challenge. 

Embedded federalism in a reformed Union as a third option in any referendum

There is no doubt that Starmer gets the need for changes better than his predecessors. During the leadership election, he was clear in his support for electoral reform and a constitutional convention and linked these to a socialist case. But it is not clear that he fully understands – still less that the party as a whole grasps – the need for a bold and wide-ranging programme of democratic change as a major, constantly repeated part of Labour’s offer. Only by providing a strong, clear vision of a different kind of Britain, in which key reforms are tied together in a comprehensive progamme, is there any chance of succeeding. 

In particular, Starmer needs urgently to spell out the kinds of changes which would give Scots meaningful reasons for remaining within the UK. Not just devolution, but embedded federal solutions which give the devolved nations powerful positions within the overall constitution of the UK, will be essential – alongside proposals for general democratisation. While a constitutional convention will be needed to finalise and win widespread support for a reformed UK, Starmer must now lay out Labour’s idea for what a reformed state would look like. No one is going to change their vote on the principle of a convention, but only on a clear and inspiring vision of change.

This approach should guide Starmer’s position vis-a-vis a new Scottish referendum. If Sturgeon wins a new majority in Holyrood next year on a programme of a second vote, there will be an unanswerable democratic case for it. If this happens, Starmer should support the principle, but demand that Labour’s vision of Scotland within a reformed democratic UK be a third option in the vote. This is hardly a novel idea – after all Alex Salmond, when Scottish First Minister, wanted ‘devo-max’ as a third option in 2014 – so Starmer should challenge Sturgeon to support including a Labour option in the vote, in returning for allying with the case for a referendum.

It will be not be easy to convince a Labour Party which is still too tribal and too inclined to see constitutional issues as optional add-ons to the socialist case. But without a radical approach of this kind, Keir Starmer risks becoming the third Labour leader in a row to be pole-axed by the UK’s warring nationalisms and the radical constitutional politics on which they thrive. 

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