Labour’s poll lead started rising as the always inevitable chaos of Johnson’s last months ground on, soared under the Tufton St Gang’s doomed libertarian experiment, and has become seemingly locked in to a large and steady lead under Sunak.
Already there’s a tangible sense among the commentariat that the Tories are heading for defeat at the next election. The flattering profiles of Rachel Reeves, serious attention to the Labour leader in The Times and The Telegraph, these things add to the sense in the London media that change is on the way, and might even be quite interesting.
But it’s not surprising that Starmer is apparently warning his Shadow Cabinet about the dangers of complacency. It’s not so much the folk memory of 1992 that’s seared on Labour’s collective psyche, as a hard headed analysis of polling data.
Labour’s headline numbers look good, but dig about in the weeds and they also look soft. Labour was ahead in the polls leading up to 2015, too. The new wisdom is that party poll ratings are a less reliable guide to how an election campaign will go than the ratings of the respective leaders. And Sunak and Starmer are neck and neck in the numbers for who would make the best Prime Minister, with Sunak often ahead of his Labour rival.
Add to this the “shy Tories”, those nervous little creatures who scuttle for cover behind the ‘Don’t Know’ label whenever a pollster asks the question about voting intention. Different pollsters use different methods to finesse these ostensibly undecided voters, but there’s plausible evidence that if and when they vote, they split about two to one in favour of the Conservatives.
It is upon these hypotheses – about the relative strength of the party leaders, and the reserve army of mobilisable Tory voters – that some Tory strategists are marking out a route through which they can minimise their losses, and perhaps even retain power in a 5th successive general election victory.
In other words, the Tories, factious, ungovernable as they are, are still true to their primary motivation – the gaining, retention, and exercise of power. They will fight, hard and as dirty as is necessary (and then some), to serve the interests they love.
And it might even be relatively simple for the Tories and their allies in the media to smash Starmer and smear Labour, if it wasn’t for a bloody great rancid flea in the ointment. Movement on their right flank.
Reform U.K., heirs to UKIP and the Brexit Party, are stirring. And this time they’re promising to stand against the Tories in all seats, unlike 2019 where they stood down for hard-line Brexiters. Some polls put their ratings as high as 9%, equalling Lib Dem poll numbers. Breathless right wing newspapers speculate about the return of Nigel Farage, and there’s sometimes talk of defections of Tory MPs to the Reform banner.
I sometimes spend too long peering at poll data, but I do think it to be true that the Labour lead is soft, susceptible either to hardening, or to melting away, in the perma-campaign from now until the general election. Whether the Tories are right to fear an insurgency to their right, I can’t tell. There are new, right wing rolling opinion channels which might be cheerleading Reform, but their audience figures are tiny. How much reach their social media clips get is no doubt being researched by someone, but I haven’t seen any evidence yet to suggest that they’ll be anything more than bit players in the election.
But there’s one more factor that is not getting the attention it deserves in the Westminster focussed media. That’s the role of the SNP.
The Tory Party regards the SNP as the gift that keeps on giving. The party smashed Labour in Scotland, eliminating a swathe of parliamentary seats that Labour could once regard as their bedrock, further handicapping the party under the First Past the Post voting system. And David Cameron’s unexpected majority in 2015 arguably owed as much to a latent English nationalism that was mobilised in ‘fears’ that the SNP would the tail that wagged the dog in any minority Labour administration.
So far, so predictable. In 2022 many who were not on the Tory side enjoyed ironically resurrecting the Tories’ “Coalition of Chaos with Ed Miliband” slogan as the Tory clown show ploughed on before our incredulous eyes. But less considered has been where the SNP stands in all this. With 48 seats in the Commons, the third party in terms of size, despite Scotland having a population a good deal smaller than that of Greater London, the party is a major player in Westminster. What the SNP chooses to do under new Westminster leader Stephen Flynn really matters for what happens in the next U.K. general election, and whether Labour wins, or the Tories hang on to power.
So what interest does the SNP have in U.K. politics, and in which party is able to form the next government? How does the new SNP leadership plan to play the next 18 months, or two years?
We know that the founding purpose of the SNP is to secure the secession of Scotland from the U.K. Like all nationalist projects, the goal is sovereignty, taking back control of resources, laws and borders. The party leadership under Nicola Sturgeon has sought to do this by constitutional means.
But ‘constitutional means‘ doesn’t just mean negotiations between the U.K. government and the Scottish administration, the use of referendums, legal challenges through the courts. It also means raw politics in the pursuit of power, as is the case for any legitimate party in a democracy.
Sturgeon has said that she will treat the next U.K. general election as, in Scotland, a vote on independence. (As an aside, it wasn’t entirely clear that even the 2014 referendum was regarded by people as a a vote on independence. Like the 2016 Brexit referendum, the NHS and the state of public services cropped up a lot.) It’s a big ask, seeking over 50% of the vote under FPTP, but it’s a bold and striking strategy that has some political logic to it.
So how important are the SNP MPs in Westminster to all this? In the battle for Scottish votes, what happens in Edinburgh, and in the Scottish media is surely much more pertinent than what is, or is not said in the House of Commons? But equally SNP MPs, and the strategy and tactics adopted by their leadership on the ground are very important in the battle to set the political weather. Bluntly, SNP MPs are in a battle to game U.K. politics for maximum SNP advantage in the goal of securing majority consent for independence. The mood music of Westminster is a key part of the mix.
The new Westminster leader, Flynn, sees this with clarity. Taking back control of resources, laws and borders requires the winning of hearts far more than the winning of minds. In Holyrood for 15 years, but especially in the last eight under Sturgeon, the Holyrood election winning formula has been to present the SNP as a steady, competent, ‘social democratic’ party in tune with a steady, competent Scotland, in stark contrast to a mean, nasty, public services slashing, and latterly entirely chaotic Tory U.K. dominated by emotionally incontinent English nationalists.
In other words, failing Tory government is the optimum U.K. political backdrop for the achievement of Scottish secession. It follows from this that the maintenance and perpetuation of Westminster chaos must be the primary duty of the SNP in Westminster.
The Labour recovery threatens that happy chaos. Whilst in Scotland the framing of political choice entirely in terms of secession, with a number of inventive epithets lumping together what are called “pro-Union” parties has had more than a decade to bed in and become a normal part of political discourse, this only works whilst the “Union HQ” looks like a disease, not a cure. The long general election campaign now beginning will be seen, through however artfully skewed a lens, in terms of which party is likely to win the battle for Westminster. And if that party, Labour, seems to promise a change of direction, a renewal of public services, a restoration of a competent government and a state with the capacity to deliver change, only with far greater access to the levers of power, that could be a problem for the SNP.
We saw at Flynn’s first PMQs in December last year a more urgent sense of the SNP wanting to do in Westminster what it has done in Scotland – explicitly tying Labour to the Tories as essentially the ‘lite’ version of full-fat Tory unionism. In this, conveniently, they have allies in the form of some supporters of the former leader of the Labour Party, who are equally clear that they prefer ideological warfare and the consequent perpetuation of Tory rule, to the election of a disappointingly unradical Labour government.
The ‘thinking aloud’ I’m doing in this blog post isn’t intended to critique Starmer, or Labour’s political strategy, or likely programme for government. I’ll do that elsewhere. I’m simply trying to look at the year or so ahead from the perspective of what could keep the Tories in power, despite everything they have done, from the dismantling of a functioning state, to the international humiliation that is Brexit. And I think the conclusion is inescapable.
The fate of next U.K. government is likely to owe something – and possibly a great deal – to what the SNP does in Westminster.
Cold political logic demands that the SNP uses all its formidable skills to undermine, to ridicule, to trash Labour to prevent it gaining a big parliamentary majority. If that keeps the Tories in power, and 67 million U.K. citizens in misery, so what? It’s a price worth playing to take back sovereignty.
Labour better be prepared.