As Jeremy Corbyn looks more and more likely to be elected leader of the UK Labour Party, attention has understandably been placed on what impact he will have on Scotland, and the upcoming Scottish Parliament elections in 2016. Some are already predicting that he could have a game changing impact. I’m not convinced.
Let me begin to explain why, by analysing the wide coalition of SNP voters, and assessing the likelihood of a Jeremy Corbyn led UK Labour party changing their minds. I appreciate these labels are crude, subjective and incomplete:
Core independence supporters
They prize independence as an ideal above all else and always have. Almost no impact here.
Individuals around 18–25 drawn to independence and the SNP because of the hopeful qualities of Yes, and the wider sense of possibility it offered. I wouldn’t suggest their convictions are without substance, but for them, the appeal is as much about style and tone as substance. Some young people seem to have been drawn to Corbyn because he seems different. Young Scots have already had something that feels different and they aren’t going to switch from Nicola to Jeremy in great numbers.
Think white middle aged men who have been involved in the past in the left wing of the Labour Party or the SSP. They may feel a certain pull to a Corbyn led Labour Party, particularly if there is a sense that the SNP is being too cautious. (The caveat I raise about Scottish Labour below might be important here though.)
Middle and moderate Scotland
A significant rump of the 60 or so per cent of voters who intend to vote SNP at the Holyrood elections. They glance at the politics section of the newspaper, but don’t obsess about it. They ultimately care about which political party is most likely to enhance and protect the wellbeing of themselves and their family. They are as likely to be alarmed by Corbyn’s perceived radicalism as middle and moderate voters in England. (One of the exceptional attributes of the First Minister is that she can make an 18 year old student feel inspired, and 50 year old parent feel secure.)
Banff and Buchan SNP
The SNP’s traditional, rural, farming heartlands might choose similar hats as Jeremy Corbyn, but that is where the similarities end.
It is likely that the most left leaning part of the wider SNP voting bloc are unlikely to moralise about Jeremy Corbyn. He’ll avoid being nailed as a Red Tory, but he still won’t be for independence, and he still will be an English MP. Jeremy Corbyn will be the most acceptable face of an establishment that they will always ultimately seek to reject. (One scenario might be that the likes of RIC and Common Weal use a Jeremy Corbyn led Labour party to lean on the SNP leadership. I think that will create some internal tensions in the pro -indy movement, but far less of an impact on wider voting behaviour.) More widely, part of Corybnmania feels like it has little do with Jeremy Corybn, or the detail of his ideas. It is tapping into a sense of populist anti-establishment sentiment that has already been excavated in Scotland.
As I’ve written before, the explanation for the success of the SNP is a lot more complicated than just a perceived outflanking of Scottish Labour on the left. The SNP’s inherent advantages will remain. They can continue to take a position on welfare for example that has very little political downside. They can attack the UK Government and the Opposition, secure in the knowledge that they don’t have to deliver or pay for reserved policy matters. They will lose their status as the only rhetorical opponents of austerity, but it doesn’t mean they will stop being the party rhetorically ‘standing up for Scotland.’ Nor will they lose their leader, talented elected representatives, savvy backroom operators, members or money.
Whether Jeremy Corbyn crosses the line or not, it is clear that there has been a fundamental transformation of the ordinary membership of the UK Labour Party. Just look at the results of CLP nominations now versus 2010 where David Miliband led the way. It is interesting to compare this to a Scottish membership that voted for Jim Murphy only a matter of months ago. It is quite possible that the growth of the SNP, means that the influx of radical members into Labour as a whole, simply hasn’t happened to the same extent in Scotland. It will be an odd quirk if Scotland ends up becoming a stronghold of a moderate Labour centre.
Still in the long term, Scottish Labour has to become a credible political force in Scotland on our terms. The UK leader will of course have an influence, but if there is to be a resurgence of Scottish Labour, it will have to be crafted in Scotland, and delivered in Scotland. This will be the case whoever becomes the Leader of the Opposition.
I do appreciate that Jeremy Corbyn is currently speaking to some sizeable and enthused crowds in Scotland, but as ever, elections are decided by those who don’t attend political rallies. The SNP’s big tent offer is a conglomeration of different messages, to a diverse coalition of voters, stretching across Scotland. Jeremy Corbyn may pull a small fraction of voters away, or provoke minor splintering, but he is unlikely to fundamentally fracture that coalition. Or to put it another way, he might kick away a few poles, but Nicola Sturgeon’s big tent will stay standing.