Tommy Sheppard

MP for Edinburgh East

It's better to be led by the left while we're in UK

Conference-Spring-19

Dearie me, what’s going on in the People’s Party? First, shadow chancellor John McDonnell states that a Westminster Labour government wouldn’t block a request from the Scottish Parliament to hold an independence referendum. He says it twice just in case anyone thinks the first time was a mistake. And this week Jeremy Corbyn says it again to be sure.

Now, in one sense, it’s an unremarkable statement. But strangely it seems to have caused apoplectic rage in Labour’s Scottish ranks. This summer’s red-on-red action marks a further step in the journey to irrelevance by this once great party.

It’s hard to see what all the fuss is about. No-one expects Labour to support independence. Nor to support having a referendum on the question. What democrats should expect is that a party committed to allowing people here to decide their own future would respect any decisions taken by majority vote in the Scottish Parliament.

That’s all McDonnell and Corbyn said. In stating the blindingly obvious they are paying rather more attention to Scottish public opinion than their Scottish lieutenants - people so far inside their own bunker they cannot see what is going on around them.

Latest polls show not only that support for independence is over 50% and rising, but that a majority favour asking the question sooner rather than later. More significant is the split by party, as 40% of Labour supporters in Scotland also say they support political independence for our country.

That’s four in ten of thoses who would still vote Labour – not those who used to. When you consider significant layers of former Labour support has switched to the SNP precisely because of its stance on independence it is not unreasonable to suggest that a sizeable majority of the people Labour should be aiming to win over are pro-Indy.

That is why McDonnell is trying to signal a more relaxed stance on the question. He knows that if they’re too dogmatic and set their face resolutely against even discussing independence they risk losing further support. And of course he is all too aware of the political damage done to Labour following their alliance with the Tories last time round. In many ways Labour’s London leadership is trying to save the party in Scotland from itself. Good luck with that.

Labour Unionists will tell you that it’s not that they object in principle to a referendum. They say, after all, that they support the Claim of Right which states that people in Scotland have the right to decide the manner in which they are governed. No, the argument is that there’s already been a referendum and no-one wants another one.

Really? How do they know?

How would anyone judge whether people who live in Scotland want to review the decision to stay in the UK taken in 2014? There’s the opinion polls of course. But these can be partial, inaccurate and ephemeral.

I know: what if there was a General Election to the Scottish national parliament? And what if the question of whether to have a referendum was a central issue in that election with different parties arguing for and against? And what if that election returned a majority of representatives on a mandate of having a referendum? Surely then it would only be fair and democratic for that majority to execute its central policy.

This is not an abstract or theoretical question. This actually happened. In 2016. Mandate extant.

This week, the SNP have been clear that they could support a minority Labour administration at Westminster. Again, nothing new here. At the last two elections the SNP has argued for a progressive alternative to the Tories if the cards dealt by the electorate make that possible.

The SNP are a left-of-centre party. Not till hell freezes over would we support keeping the Tories in power (note to self, LibDems). Whilst we remain part of the UK, it is better for Scotland that it is governed from the left.

When we become an independent country that will be even more the case. Why would be want anything other than for our nearest neighbour to be led by a government espousing the same sort of social justice and public interest economic policies as we aspire to here? That is not to say that Jeremy Corbyn gets a blank cheque – but simply that there’s deal to be done.

Doubtless there will be some unionist conspiracy theorists thinking that there’s some linkage between the Labour leadership position on a Scottish referendum and the SNP’s tentative support should they need it. There isn’t.

Both are long-standing positions by either party, admittedly given topical relevance by the imminence of a General Election. And both are decent, fair and common sense answers to hypothetical, but probable, questions. Sometimes two groups of people can do the right thing by coincidence.

Written for the Sunday National - 18th August 2019

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