18 Jun 2017
June 18, 2017
Today’s Sunday Herald (paywall) reported SNP MP Tommy Sheppard calling for two things. First, a delay in an independence referendum until we know the terms of Brexit. This was already widely believed to the Scottish government policy in any case. Yet Sheppard’s call seemed to pressage a debate not simply about when a referendum should happen but whether it should happen at all. What, after all, will be the SNP’s policy on a referendum be if Brexit now delivers all of the Scottish government’s demands?
Second, Sheppard urged the SNP to move left. His argument that this should happen because the losses sustained by the SNP at the General Election came due to the move of young Yes voters to Labour needs one qualifier. Notably, Labour’s vote increased by only 2% and the greatest damage done to the SNP was by large numbers of their voters in moving directly across to the Tories (the Tories gained over 13% and the SNP lost over 13%, much of that vote going directly across). In addition, Liberal Democrats switched to Tory and there was some tactical voting by Labour voters in Edinburgh South and Ochil.
However, as this blog has pointed out, even with the return of the Tories in numbers, in most of the seats it gained Labour would not have quite beaten the SNP without those additional Yes voters Sheppard correctly identifies. Mr Sheppard’s case for an SNP move left, having lost former Tories who used the SNP as a bulwark against Labour and have now gone back to the Tories, seems sound.
How far and fast left the SNP should go, though, is a matter for the SNP as a whole, and of course for its leaders. The appointment of a businessmen with an East Coast constituency as Mr Sheppard’s boss at Westminster suggests that the SNP is not yet in any mood to tackle its ambiguity about where it lies on the political spectrum. And for now, this caution seems understandable. The SNP occupies the centre-ground of Scottish politics and will not want to concede that by moving too far too quickly.
Meanwhile, although it seems clear that Mr Shepherd is correct about young Yes folk motivated by Jeremy Corbyn, it is equally clear that the Scottish Labour leadership despises Corbyn and his politics. The Scottish Labour Party put all its resources into one right of centre seat, which some believe it held by encouraging Labour/Tory tactical voting. Many Corbynites believe that this strategy helped the Tories return to government (for now…). Meanwhile, the seats the Labour Party won, often with little or no increase in its actual vote, came in spite of and not because of its leadership’s plan.
The question for some long-standing SNP supporters will be whether Mr Sheppard has reverted to Labour Party type. After all, he seems to be questioning the need for a referendum and arguing for the SNP to be more Corbynite. In addition, he’s very much a Tommy come lately having been a member of the SNP for just 3 years and an MP for just two.
That’s a matter for SNP members, of course. It’s understandable that those who have been in for the long haul will find it emotionally difficult to adapt to the new reality that independence is possible now, but not with SNP votes alone.
It does seem that Sheppard believes that the SNP will sink if it cannot produce policies and energy which rival Jeremy Corbyn’s and make those young Yes voters one-off Labour voters.
But other, and for me far more significant, point is that Sheppard understands the difference between supporting independence and supporting the SNP. It is certain that Corbynites within Scottish Labour understand this too. For now, the Scottish Labour leadership talk of nothing but the union and the SNP (look at their Twitter streams, which rarely indicate that the Tories are in office, if not quite in power again yet). For them, a Tory UK government is a fair price to pay for hurting the SNP.
But experienced Corbynites in Scottish Labour, who know Mr Sheppard well, see things differently and are working their way to the same conclusions as Sheppard. They see the significance of those Yes voters who voted Labour, and they want to keep them. They will understand that the best way to lose them will be to carry on doing what their leadership is doing and demonising Yes voters. What they desperately need is a change of leadership, but that looks long way off at the moment.
In the end, and likely for the period up until the Scottish parliamentary election in 2021, whether or not there is another UK election Mr Sheppard will divide opinion within the SNP yet may become the most pivotal player or all for Yes voters as a whole. If Jeremy Corbyn becomes prime minister, as he may well, Sheppard’s job may be made harder, but he will still be in the right place to give independence its best chance. Independence supporters of all parties will be listening very carefully indeed to Mr Sheppard from now on. Woe betide any senior politician who fails to understand his significance.
NB: I describe Ian Blackford as an ‘East Coast’ MP above. His constituency, of course, goes coast to coast. Thanks to Maria.