2021 Scottish Parliament election, Anas Sarwar, Boris Johnson, Brexit, Coronavirus, COVID-19, Democracy, Douglas Ross, Hartlepool Byelection, Indyref2, Keir Starmer, Labour, Nicola Sturgeon, Opinion, Politics, Scotland, Scottish Independence, Scottish Labour, Scottish National Party, Scottish Nationalism, SNP, Unionism
It is now clear that Thursday’s panoply of elections has strengthened the different parties of government at Westminster and Holyrood. Indeed, the resemblance between these parties has been only clarified for us more disconcertingly.
The Tories are today the familiar handbasket for English nationalism whilst the SNP provides much the same function for Scotland’s equivalent burden. This is nationalism as an apolitical force, or as a kind of empty sentimentality. Both the Tories and the SNP currently enjoy a broad popular support, but without this necessarily involving or resulting from any reliable connection to working-class communities.
Both parties are ultimately technocratic and, when combined with the vacuum of political opposition that greets them, one gets the oppressive feeling of a monochrome, corporate politics. If a thousand voters were given all of the Tory and SNP policies from the last few years in a great bundle, I doubt that more than one of them could successfully pick out which was which. The coming years will probably feel like wading through yet more technocratic sludge. The meagre relief that is afforded by Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon is that our gaze is able to rise and settle on a recognisable human face.
The Labour opposition might appear to have had a terrible Thursday. In the jellied, working-class seaside town of Hartlepool, the Tories had won a byelection with a majority of almost seven thousand over Labour. The problem for Labour is that Hartlepool is hardly a swing seat. It had once looked as likely that Hartlepool could downvote Labour as that it could send away the sea.
The humiliation that has been lately visited upon Labour’s leader, Sir Keir Starmer, is the result of inauspicious policy positioning, some in the medium term and some over the long. Sir Keir had gambled on out-experting the technocrats, in setting himself up as an even more imposing manager and administrator than Johnson is. This had entailed having a corporate “vision” rather than any actual identifiable policies.
The crisis for Labour had begun when, improbably, Johnson had bumbled his way through the pandemic respectably enough to be able to look Sir Keir in the eye. Suddenly, it had seemed as if Sir Keir was simply gambling on the vaccination programme failing, on COVID-19 deaths spiralling out of control again, on the lockdown returning, and on Labour being passively enriched by these disasters. To style Labour as a vulture that is watching the country’s malaise and calculatingly eyeing it up is not obviously attractive to voters.
The longer-term mistake lies with Brexit. For four years, the shadow cabinet had toured television studios, sharing their devout wisdom that Brexit would at best mark the beginning of an inexorable national decline, and that at worst it would be an apocalyptic outcome. Some of them appear to have even genuinely believed this. Emily Thornberry, for example, had described Brexit as a vote “to take your neighbour’s job away.” This year the Brexit storm has passed and we can see that jobs, wages, goods prices, rents and mortgages have been not so far influenced by the change. Labour cannot be so wrong, for such a long period of time, on such a basic economic question, and then expect for voters to instantly forget about it. Labour’s Remainers are a political generation so luckless that they might need to be written off altogether.
Whilst these failures pertain to the national leadership, and the local elections have been no great shakes for Labour, Labour politicians have acquired a certain, interesting relevancy at a regional level. The dust has rolled away from Wales to reveal Mark Drakeford to be still installed as the First Minister; the mayor Andy Burnham will continue as a maestro of regional government in Greater Manchester; Sadiq Khan has not been dislodged as mayor of London (in what has been a weirdly muted election given London’s cultural dominance of the UK); and Anas Sarwar has fought a surprisingly relaxed, commonsensical and self-confident campaign in Scotland.
Labour is admittedly two seats down from where it had been last time. The blame for this can be nonetheless dumped fully onto Richard Leonard, whose protracted departure from the leadership in January had left Sarwar rushing up to conduct only after the orchestra had started playing. Labour has still increased its share of the vote in some important constituencies and clung on in others. Perhaps the effect is more psychological than measurable. Sarwar is right to claim that, “We are back on the pitch and people aren’t embarrassed anymore to say they vote Labour.”
Meanwhile, the Tories’ Douglas Ross is hogging the famous “Scottish [Unionist] cringe.” He adds to the unfortunate impression that Unionists associate Scotland with mediocrity, since it is unimaginable that he could hold a senior role in the UK cabinet but the Tories still judge him to be suitable medicine for Scotland. His salesperson skills are clearly far dimmer than those of his predecessor Ruth Davidson, who has randomly lost all hunger for political power, whilst the Tories’ vague drift towards the centre concedes that they regard the ideology that fuels them as being a liability and disposable. In short, they look purposeless and this increasingly begs the question of why they, or at least their voters, cannot be dissolved into Labour to create a single, Unionist front.
The movement for Scottish independence looks strangely vulnerable today and its victory is in fact devoid of content. Sturgeon has landed in the awry position of having to ask for independence at a time when the polling support is not amenable and when her movement has not put in any of the intellectual groundwork that will be needed for the arduous economic arguments ahead.
Some of the SNP’s most troublesome critics, such as the Spectator’s John Ferry and Kevin Hague, the chairman of These Islands, submit themselves as voices of technocratic realism rather than expressing any great sympathy towards the Left. Interestingly, however, when Hague had appeared on BBC News yesterday, he had stressed that independence will be synonymous with “austerity,” a line that would roll very well off the tongues of future Labour activists. Perhaps we should start calling it, “Scotland’s austerity referendum.”
Unionists are meant to be all currently off on some mighty quest to find the Holy Grail of “the positive case for the Union.” It could be that this case can be shown rather than told in Labour’s emerging status as a regionalist party. If this is a simple understanding between places that are not London, then it remains of cosmetic benefit that London is being still led by a Labour politician. Whilst Sir Keir is gibbeted malodourously up in the national leadership, the regional layer beneath him should aspire to practical and imaginative anti-austerity politics, across the whole of the Union.