Triangulating with the SNP is a tactical disaster
During the 2015 general election, one of the Conservatives’ most potent campaigning tactics was to keep asking a simple question: would Ed Miliband do a deal with the Scottish National Party to get into Downing Street?
It was a simple message — and an eye-catching poster — which managed to hit a lot of buttons at once.
Whether an individual voter felt more British or more English, the prospect of a Labour Government offering yet more constitutional special treatment to people who want to break up this country was deeply unappealing.
And while it might not have paid off in that election, it still might have planted doubts about Labour in the minds of pro-UK voters in Scotland, who only a year later delivered a historic second-place finish for the Conservatives in the Holyrood elections.
Sir Keir Starmer clearly grasps that this question still poses a danger to his fortunes, especially given that his improved polling suggests he’ll need other parties in order to oust the Tories after the next election.
But even though he has once again publicly ruled out any deal with the SNP, members of his own party seem determined to pull the rug out from under his feet: according to the Times, Labour might be about to allow pro-independence candidates to run in their name in Scotland.
If that sounds ridiculous, bear in mind that Welsh Labour has already done it. There is sadly no shortage of activists who cherish the fantasy of permanent Left-wing rule outside the UK — or have simply run out of ideas in the face of the SNP’s electoral dominance.
But as long as Scottish and Welsh Labour remain part of a coherent national party, they should not be allowed to field candidates who want to break that nation up. Even setting principle to one side, the tactical implications are dire.
For one, it is precisely by trying to muddle through that Left-wing parties get swallowed up during periods of constitutional polarisation, as the Irish Left did during the 1920s.
Labour’s increasingly desperate attempts to triangulate back towards everybody liking them risks alienating their largely pro-UK electorate without winning over many separatist voters, for whom the SNP and the Greens remain more compelling choices.
At Westminster, meanwhile, it completely undermines Starmer’s attempts to shut down questions about his relationship with the Nationalists. Why would anyone maintain a cordon sanitaire between themselves and the separatists if they’re neutral on the question of separation itself?
Even more fundamentally, why should we believe his recent efforts to sell himself to the public as a British patriot if he’s not even prepared to take a firm line on the continued existence of the British state?
Unfortunately, 10 years after losing office Labour still have no new thinking on the issue. Starmer has outsourced his Scottish policy to Gordon Brown, who bears much responsibility for the present state of the Union and who’s top priority is refusing to admit it.
But the days Labour could kid themselves that it was possible to triangulate with the SNP are over.