Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Sturgeon’s challenge

The rows over next week’s TV debates have demonstrated Nicola Sturgeon’s ambition, and Scottish Labour need to step up to the plate, writes Sheila Gilmore

As soon as I heard the words ‘TV debate’, I knew the next words would be, ‘What about me?’ from Nicola Sturgeon. Even if ultimately unsuccessful, it is another grievance to add to the many.

If Nicola then why not Plaid Cymru, the Democratic Unionist party, the Green party, and so on and so forth. We would end up with one of those ‘cast of thousands’ debates where there is too little time for anyone to say anything of significance. If this were to be a genuine debate about Brexit, why not speakers from various standpoints the actual issue at hand?

For those of us north of the border, the question on everyone’s mind is: will Brexit be a game changer in Scottish politics? In the immediate aftermath of the European Union referendum the Scottish National party saw the outcome as opening the door to Indy Ref2. Many Scots politely said no to this proposition in 2017, causing the SNP to loose much of the ground they made in 2015. Nor did all SNP voters share Sturgeon’s outrage that Scotland was to be dragged out of Europe; not so surprising when 30 per cent of the SNP’s 2015 voters voted ‘Leave’.

That isn’t to say that there are not strong pro-‘Remain’ feelings in Scotland. Here in Edinburgh I find many people who are passionately pro-Europe. That brings us a new problem: some Labour voters saying they might vote SNP next time, not because they want independence but because they feel that the Labour leadership should come out much more strongly for staying in the single market and customs union, or further than that: in favour of a People’s Vote.

Has the experience of the last two and a half years had any impact on the independence debate? For some it shows how unrealistic many of the SNP statements were back in 2014 – when Independence Day was going to be only 18 months on from the referendum. To put this into further context it is going to take 4 years for the newly devolved social security powers to be fully transferred. Just one small part of a single government department.

Others argue that had Scotland become independent it would be avoiding the economic impacts of Brexit because we would by now be still in or back in Europe. Hard border on the Tweed anyone?

For the committed on each side, opinions seem to be reinforced, but a successful second run at independence requires more than the most committed to vote for it. As Labour we need to be reinforcing the message that being part of United Kingdom is beneficial to Scotland and that the economic consequences of separation would be damaging. Not to speak of the upheaval.

We need to be clear. In Edinburgh East (and other Scottish constituencies) the Tory vote nearly doubled between 2015 and 2017. In part, that was because of a perception that Labour’s position on independence was weak. A hint that we would be willing to offer support for a referendum – in return for support if we don’t get an overall majority at Westminster – could lose us some of the anti-SNP vote, and weakens our case for voting Labour. If you can get a Labour government just as easily by voting SNP as by voting Labour, then it makes it harder for us to win.

But SNP support will always come at a price. Independence is always their number one aim. John McDonnell this weekend was right – should Labour be able to form a minority government, we must challenge the SNP to support our agenda or keep the Tories in power.

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Sheila Gilmore is the former member of parliament for Edinburgh East

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Sheila Gilmore

is the former member of parliament for Edinburgh East

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