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Scottish Labour Should Ditch the Hardline Unionism - It Won't Win Them Voters Back

03/05/2017 12:10 BST | Updated 03/05/2017 12:10 BST
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When political commentators write about the 'strange death' of Labour in Scotland, they tend to pinpoint the same traits again and again. Ex-Labour supporters are frequently depicted as angry divorcees who have been bewitched by divisive nationalism. As Owen Jones has repeatedly put it, "they feel the bitterness of ex-lovers and the zealotry of the convert."

This analysis isn't entirely incorrect - I personally know many people from Labour families who hold nothing but vitriol for the party they once voted for no matter what. But it doesn't account for those of us who are still desperate to vote for Labour but just can't bring ourselves to for one key reason: their hardline stance against independence.

It's not simply the case that all Yes converts believe the issue of independence trumps everything else. Many of us remain sceptical about the SNP: the Scottish Government's stringent centrist agenda and incessant cuts to vital local services has diminished much of the good will afforded to them in recent elections. In fact, recent surveys by YouGov, the Daily Record and Panelbase show that while support for independence has remained relatively firm since 2014, support for the SNP has markedly dropped.

Theresa May's decision to call an early election will have jolted many people into considering their immediate priorities. Although Jeremy Corbyn is undeniably flawed as a leader, he has committed to policies that many of us on the Scottish left have been calling for for years: higher taxes on the wealthiest in our society, a £10-an-hour minimum wage and capping wages at firms with government contracts.

The SNP outflanked Labour by employing an anti-austerity narrative in 2015, but the message this time around seems to be revolved around keeping Scotland in the European Union at all costs. It might suit their agenda to repeatedly highlight how Scotland voted compared to the rest of the UK, but it's not necessarily top of working people's every day concerns.

You therefore might assume Scottish Labour would tailor their campaigns for both local and national elections towards addressing these real issues. Given the bulk of their unionist base appears to be deserting them for the Tories, a strong Labour message that cuts through the constitutional divide would have been welcome. Instead, their campaign leaflets and broadcasts have been unequivocal: vote Scottish Labour to say no to another independence referendum. It'd be disappointing if it weren't so depressingly predictable.

The usual suspects have been out in force parroting the same line. Former Chancellor Alistair Darling says a vote for Labour is a vote against another 'divisive referendum'. Former Better Together strategist Blair McDougall, who is running as a candidate in East Renfrewshire, is yet to attack the Conservatives once and treating the election as a referendum re-run. If Labour's plan genuinely is to win back Yes voters then they're not doing a good job.

These 'New' Labour stalwarts stress it's Jeremy Corbyn and not them who's out of touch with the Scottish public. Yet, despite his poor personal approval ratings, Corbyn at least recognises young voters will always be a crucial demographic that can help Labour keep in touch if sufficiently mobilised.

In Scotland this same demographic overwhelmingly support independence, with most polls placing upwards of 60-70% of 18-25s in the Yes camp. In my last blog, I referenced a London School of Economics study that found there had been no rise in nationalism during the last general election period.

Even more significantly, though, another academic study found young Yes voters often 'explicitly distance themselves from nationalist sentiment'. Maybe - just maybe - attacking 'divisive nationalism' isn't the way to appeal to them. Meanwhile, the latest Daily Record poll shows an astonishing 48% of over 65s in Scotland intend to vote Conservative in the general election. It doesn't take a forensic scientist to recognise Labour are spending too much time chasing one side of this generational divide and not enough on the other.

Let's be clear: there are committed nationalists on both sides who will vote for either of the SNP or the Conservatives because they either support or oppose a second referendum. But the question of independence will not be Scotland's defining electoral issue forever.

Of course it'd be naïve to expect Labour to announce a wholesale policy shift towards independence when their elected representatives are almost unanimously against it. Nevertheless, the party need to recognise the political realities. If Scotland remains in the UK, it undergoes Hard Brexit with the rest of the UK. No ifs, no buts.

If Scottish Labour adopt a neutral stance on the upcoming independence referendum and continue to advocate genuine socialist policies, I'm willing to forgive previous misdeeds consider voting them again and I know I'm not alone. If they believe such a position is a betrayal of their values then so be it, but it may end up being the hill they die on.