It’s that time again folks – the annual Labour leadership contest. Scotland is (not quite) engrossed as two men vie to lead the Scottish arm of the party – and what a sight it is to behold. In the red corner, we have Richard Leonard, the new standard bearer for socialism and total lack of name recognition in Scotland. And in the also red, honestly, I’m on board with Corbyn now corner is Anas Sarwar, who is pursuing the novel strategy of self-destructing his own campaign in order to claim underdog status.
Apart from the conviction they have what it takes to be Scotland’s next First Minister, the main unifying theme in the contest is a complete refusal to countenance any form of deal with the dastardly SNP. Vote for me because I’ll stand up to nationalism and always put Scotland first, entreats Sarwar nationalistically. Vote for Real Change, is the siren song of Leonard, who apparently hasn’t given any thought to changing Labour’s self-imposed cordon sanitaire on the SNP. It’s all rather unedifying and more than a little reminiscent 2007-11 when having lost their ball to the SNP, Labour refused to play.
Now I’m not for one second suggesting either contender come out and cheerfully state their desire to go into coalition with the SNP. To do so may well hand their opponent the leadership, and the Tories another line of totally policy-free attack. And I recognise there is no love lost between Scotland’s two major governing parties. But refusing point blank to even consider the possibility of them working together, despite doing so in a number of councils, is utter foolishness. If they stick to their guns on this, they risk rendering Scotland totally ungovernable after the next election.
Leonard in particular seems to be fully behind the Corbynite strategy that could be described as Socialism With One Party. Why work with other progressive parties – like the Greens – when you can instead gobble up all the people who voted for them last time and win a majority? At Westminster in England and Wales, that looks very likely to work. Yet in Scotland and Holyrood, it’s doomed for failure. Let’s be realistic – Labour will not win a majority in 2021. The overwhelmingly likelihood is that no one will. The SNP’s 2011 majority has much to answer for. Thought impossible, the fact it happened once now has everyone acting like it’s an easy feat to repeat. It is not.
Scotland may not be as different from England and Wales as many nationalists like to assume, but there are two obvious yawning chasms with our southern counterparts. Every election in Scotland except for Westminster uses PR, which makes it harder to hoover up votes as “but X party can’t win here!” has far less traction. And the constitution is still a very real and very contentious dividing line. I doubt it’s as hard a line as the SNP would wish – fewer and fewer young voters remember Labour governments, let alone are angry about them – but it exists. There is an upper limit on the number of voters Labour can win back from the SNP as a result, and trying to do so is largely exclusive to winning them back from the Tories.
It seems unlikely now, but I don’t doubt with enough momentum (badumtish) and especially if Corbyn has been swept into Number 10 not long before (snap GE19 anyone?) Labour could actually come first in the next Holyrood elections. But with a majority? Not a chance. Even close to a majority? I don’t think so. Call it 50 seats, absolute tops. Where then do the other 15 come from? The Tories? Hardly compatible with socialism and liable to get Labour booted back out on their arse the next election. The Greens might hope we can pick up that many seats, but that’d be a pretty incredible success. The Lib Dems can be written off right now. That only leaves the SNP.
In fairness, the SNP may prove just as obstinate in such a scenario – but they aren’t centring it as part of leadership manoeuvres. And all of this is assuming Labour do come ahead. The SNP could still top the polls. We’re probably facing a situation where the only two party majority is provided by some combination out of the SNP, Labour and the Tories. Would Labour really walk away from supporting an SNP minority or accepting SNP support for their own if it allowed them to enact a significant portion of their agenda? Would, if push came to shove, the SNP refuse a chance to retain major influence even if only junior partners?
The Scottish Parliament isn’t designed for programmatic purity, and the Scottish electorate don’t seem inclined to grant another majority. Three and a half years out, it would be unwise to assume current polling will hold – and politics is all about making your own luck after all. But it would also be daft to assume that change is certain. There is a distinct possibility that the only way to ensure stable governance in Scotland is a Labour-SNP pact. Doing all you can to poison that well before you end up having to drink from it isn’t the kind of Real Change people might be hoping for.