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’. Yet as Johnson unleashes a ferocious nationalist assault on the EU, Starmer – who has avoided his lesser provocations – now faces a grave challenge over the government’s disregard for international law, coupled with its plan to neuter the UK’s human rights legislation.
It is evident that, while Brexit has happened, the profound conflicts it caused are still at the centre of British politics and Starmer will have no choice but to address them. Unless he finds a convincing way to do so, his initial successes could be quickly undermined.
Meanwhile the left is analysing the failure of Starmer’s predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, in the light of Left Out’s account of his leadership. This informative book starts with his surprising advance in the 2017 election, and shows how a combination of his own and his allies’ personal and political failings derailed hopes of further progress.
Yet 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 in 2015, Corbyn inherited the failure of his predecessor Ed Miliband to overcome not only the threat from UKIP, which led to Brexit, but also a growing polarisation between Scottish and English nationalisms, which played a direct role in destroying his prospect of victory.
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 not just to an even more decisive weakening of Labour but any hope of progress within the framework of the British state?
What connects Scottish independence and Brexit
Labour’s fatal weakness 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. Many of both Miliband’s and Corbyn’s policies were popular, but in the elections of 2015 and 2019 and of course the 2016 referendum, Labour was ultimately eclipsed by its British/English and Scottish nationalist opponents. 2017 was a partial exception but it does not falsify the trend, since Labour’s relative success owed much to Remainers swinging behind Corbyn. The lesson is that only with attractive, coherent answers to the big constitutional questions can Labour hope to compete when the chips are down.
Only with attractive, coherent answers to the big constitutional questions can Labour hope to compete when the chips are down.
Left-wing and Remainer commentators tend to see the questions of Scotland and Brexit as very different. 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 threatens the same problems as Brexit. 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: even the legal framework for the process will be contested between the rump UK and Scottish governments. The nationalists have not found convincing solutions to their three big 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. Since the UK has 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 total legitimation. We have seen with Brexit how a tiny majority for secession is a recipe for new polarisation which further complicates the process.
We have seen with Brexit how a tiny majority for secession is a recipe for new polarisation which further complicates the process.
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, independence would make a modest practical difference, even be largely symbolic, at least until EU accession.
The political costs, however, 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.
Labour’s only hope is ambitious democratic reform of the UK state
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. 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, south of the border at least, depends on doing so.
Labour will not advance by tacking individual constitutional reforms onto a message which is largely focused on the economy and health, important as they may be. Only a clear, bold and consistently repeated case for democratic reform across the UK, equally prioritised with the case for economic and social justice, has any chance of making an impact.
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 needs to learn from its experience under Blair: democratising Scotland but not England, as it did in the late 1990s, 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 even 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. The regime has made it clear that it intends to dismantle or neuter legal protections, stopping the law being used to protect democracy and citizens’ rights.
The structures of English corruption have only become more entrenched in recent years, as they have been harnessed to Johnson-Cummings’ elective dictatorship.
The challenge for Keir Starmer
There is no doubt that Starmer, more than any of his predecessors, gets the need for changes. During the leadership election, he was clear in his support for electoral reform and a constitutional convention and linked these to the 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 comprehensive programme of democratic change, and the centrality of the linkage to the upcoming Scottish debate. 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 change.
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 giving the devolved nations embedded and 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, only on clear guidelines for change.
No one is going to change their vote on the principle of a convention, only on clear guidelines for change.
This approach should guide Starmer’s position vis-a-vis a new Scottish referendum. Given Brexit, if Sturgeon wins a new majority in Holyrood next year, there will be an unanswerable democratic case for a vote. 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.