There’s been a lot of Holyrood-bubble drama around LabourForIndy recently. Who’s that in their photos? When did you join Labour? Is it even real? It might seem like the phoniest of wars, but it’s happening for a reason.
Fear. Specifically Labour fear.
As I’ve said before, if the referendum is to be won, it’ll be won from the left and centre-left. By next September let’s assume 75% of 2011 SNP voters will probably back independence. Die-hard capital-N nationalists, some fairly left-wing, some to the right. They make up about 30-33% of the electorate, and therefore 60-66% of the Yes vote required.
Add in a good slice of Greens and Socialists – not a huge number, although some SNP folk say Patrick Harvie’s messages are persuading voters who are neither nationalist nor Green – plus a fragment of Lib Dems frustrated by the absence of federalism from the ballot, and Yes is still short about a sixth of the vote. That sixth can only come from Labour voters plus increased turnout from the working class ex-Labour abstainers (or lifetime abstainers), the very people for whom Westminster has done next to nothing for generations.
Hence the fuss. LabourForIndy as an organisation may not (yet?) be that substantial, but Labour voters for independence are where the referendum can be won. And there are lots of them already. Take the May Panelbase poll for the Sunday Times, the most recent one up on UK Polling Report, which gives crossbreaks on voting intention and referendum intention.
The results for Q3 there (which should say “constituency”, not region) show that 41% of the undecided are Labour voters. Fewer than 50% of Labour’s supporters from 2011 backed Westminster rule, and 14% are voting Yes. If representative, that’s almost 90,000 people, perhaps seven or eight percent of the total Yes vote required (assuming a turnout of between 2.25m and 2.5m next year). And the Labour-backing referendum-undecideds are twice as many again.
If those undecided Labour voters break for Yes, they can ensure the referendum is won – probably no-one else can – and Labour is right to be afraid of this situation, because it threatens their position in three ways.
First, independence, and the Labour voters supporting it, jeopardises their chances of getting back into power at a UK level. Although Westminster elections aren’t commonly close enough for the Scottish block to make any difference (other than imposing Blairite reforms on the rest of the UK), it might well happen next time given the state of the polls. They want the buffer provided by right-wing MPs like Tom Harris. Pure self interest: they want him and his ilk to keep being sent to Westminster to help prop up future Labour administrations there.
Second, and this is where they should see opportunities rather than threats, it makes a return to office at Holyrood even less likely. Losing a referendum on which they have staked everything would be a massive blow to their institutional power and their credibility, especially when it’ll be clear so many of their own supporters have ignored their advice in favour of, ironically, the prospect of a Labour-led government for an independent Scotland. It’s not just their supporters and members, either. Why wouldn’t some potential Scottish Labour Ministers feel the same? One former senior Labour Minister told a friend he was privately in favour of independence so long as “the bloody Nats don’t get to run it” (no, it wasn’t Henry).
Finally, and perhaps most intriguingly, it’s an ideological threat. Labour have redefined their primary purpose as defence of the Union, in large part as self-interest. Like Scottish Lib Dem MPs, they’re amongst its main institutional beneficiaries. It’s also partly because they haven’t any other ideas. Ask yourself: what else do Labour at Holyrood want to achieve? Can you name a single radical thing? I can’t, and I follow politics pretty closely.
There’s no principled basis for boxing themselves in like this. Unless a party is established with a constitutional purpose at its heart, like the SNP, their supporters are likely to disagree on whether Holyrood or Westminster is best able to get them to their other political objectives. A third of Greens at conference regularly vote against independence, although none yet seem to want to work with the Tories as part of Better Together. It’s normal. I’m not scared by it, in the way Labour are terrified of Labour voters for independence. Rather than social justice or even Blairite aspiration, Labour have become obsessed with one arbitrary answer to this tactical question – will our objectives be better met at Westminster or at Holyrood? It’s a fragile new base to have chosen.
Their response to this trend not only threatens Labour’s future shots at governance, therefore, it also weakens their power over their voters too. That Labour Yes vote is likely to be centre-left types who find the SNP too economically right-wing, people who’ve stuck with Labour so far but who are increasingly desperate to be shot of a Tory-led Westminster. When they watch the Labour leadership line up with Tories and Lib Dems over the next year to ensure Scotland remains run by the bedroom taxing, fracking, poor-hating, immigrant-abusing Westminster they increasingly loathe, the risk has to be that that sight will put them off Labour too, and that those Labour voters for Yes will become SNP, Green or Socialist voters for Yes. I can’t be the only person who’s gone off Labour and off Westminster essentially in parallel.
It’s too late for them ever to win me back, but Labour didn’t need to be in this mess, especially if they’d put forward a credible “more powers” offer. Now, though, even as someone who still wants to see a better Labour Party, I now can’t see a way out of the uncomfortable corner they’ve painted themselves into. The harder they try to retain their grip, the weaker their position becomes. No wonder they’re afraid.