Tuesday, 24 May 2022

English nationalism makes Labour their own worst enemies


During the 2015 election campaign, the Tories made great play (with some nasty but effective little posters to back it up) of the idea that a Labour victory in England would end up leaving Ed Milliband in Alex Salmond’s pocket. Whether it worked or not, we can’t be entirely certain. It was aimed, obviously, only at English voters, and particularly the sort of nationalist English voters who subsequently fell prey to the insane idea that England was so special that it could have all the benefits of EU membership with none of the costs or disadvantages.

It was, though, nonsense. It might not have looked that way at the time, because not many really believed that the SNP would pull off what was almost a clean sweep (winning 56 of 59 seats). However, once the results were in, it was clear that Westminster politics was facing a new reality. That reality was delayed by the unexpected overall majorities for the Tories delivered by an unrepresentative voting system, not only in 2015 but also subsequently in 2017 and 2019. But with the polls currently suggesting both that an overall majority for any one party is highly unlikely and that SNP dominance of Scottish seats is unlikely to disappear any time soon, whichever party comes out top in England in the next election has no choice but to deal with the fact that a block of 50+ SNP MPs is highly likely to hold the balance of power. Whether, or how, they choose to wield it over England-only issues is unclear, but their votes (and those of the people who elected them) cannot simply be ignored.

However, ignoring it is, it seems, precisely what the failed Labour campaign team of 2015 is advising Keir Starmer to do. The lesson that they appear to have learned from that campaign is that they mustn’t allow the Tories to depict a potential minority Labour government as depending on the votes of the SNP for its survival – a rather simplistic interpretation which overlooks the fact that a minority Tory administration would also have to handle the situation in Scotland somehow if it wanted to get any legislation through. In order to avoid the Tories painting them in such a fashion, Labour, they say, must make it clear that there will be no deals or arrangements of any sort with the SNP. This, they hope, will help them attract the votes of English nationalists for themselves.

One element of the proposal makes a certain amount of political sense. Forming a minority government and daring the SNP to vote against the policies they put forward will work for much of the probable Labour manifesto; SNP MPs are more likely to support Labour, or abstain, on most policies than they are to vote with the Tories. And on some issues (Trident leaps to mind), even if the SNP oppose Labour policy, a minority Labour government could probably rely on Tory support. There are some policies which Labour might have to adapt or delay rather than risk defeat, but a minority Labour government could probably work overall most of the time.

The bugbear – and the big argument against the above – is the second suggestion from the failed campaign team, which is that Labour should rule out, in any and all circumstances, allowing a second referendum on Scottish independence. Even if every Scottish MP is from the SNP (not an impossible outcome), elected on a specific platform of holding a second referendum, and even if an overall majority of Scottish electors voted for the SNP (a currently unlikely but, again, not impossible scenario) the suggestion is that the ‘democratic’ Labour Party should simply say no. It's almost guaranteed to encourage the Scottish MPs to be as awkward as possible. It could, of course, be just a campaign tactic to attempt to win over English voters opposed to Scottish independence (although all the evidence of polls suggests that English electors’ opinions on Scottish independence aren’t actually that strongly held), to be followed by a ‘reluctant acknowledgement of the facts’ after the event; but a wholly foreseeable and unnecessary U-turn the day after the election looks like foot-shooting on a Johnsonian scale. But if it isn’t just a tactic, and Labour adopt this as policy, the chances of a Labour minority government surviving for long seem to be slim, undermined by their own wholly avoidable commitment to English nationalist dogma.

If Labour really wanted to protect themselves from the accusation of being in the SNP’s pocket, they could commit to the introduction of STV for all future parliamentary elections. Nothing would do more to reduce the number of SNP MPs than a proportional electoral system in which non-SNP votes received their fair share of seats. As a bonus, it’s a policy which the SNP themselves would probably support. It makes it more likely that minority governments, parliamentary arrangements, and coalitions would become the norm, although many of us would see that as another bonus. But Labour – or at least some of them – seem to be saying that they’d actually prefer another Tory government to a situation where they don’t themselves have absolute power. Sometimes, they are their own worst enemies.


Anonymous said...

It's time we saw a bit more 'English nationalism'. The Scots and the Welsh are getting a bit of a free ride at the moment, the people of England need to be heard loud and clear too.

Politically there isn't a problem. The Union only exists because the people demand it. Reduce the demand and the Union will be no more. In the meantime, lets encourage all voices to be heard, loud and proud.

John Dixon said...

Bit of a mixed bunch there, Anon. I can agree with "...the people of England need to be heard loud and clear too", although with both the two main UK parties vying to see which can do most to promote English nationalism, I'm not sure that there's any basis for denying that they are being heard currently. I'm rather less in agreement with "It's time we saw a bit more 'English nationalism'", given that there are two parties so openly espousing exactly that. I suppose that it also partly depends on how you define 'nationalism'; if you mean the sort of nationalism which starts from an assumption of superiority and exceptionalism, than actually the world could do with a great deal less of it, from any and every nation.

"The Union only exists because the people demand it." The relationship of that assertion with fact is somewhat harder to discern. Were it as undeniably true as you suggest true, I doubt that the London establishment would be quite so keen on denying a second referendum to Scotland. After all, if the people were 'demanding' the union, the UK Government would have no problem winning the vote, would they?