Sleepwalking to Disaster

David Runciman · The Last Days of Labour

Now it looks likely that a vote will take place next year which will decide whether the Labour Party has a future. But this is not the general election, which however bad for Labour is unlikely to kill it off altogether. The vote that has the potential to change the entire dynamics of British politics is the referendum on Scottish independence, promised for the second half of 2010. In all the torrents of speculation about Brown and his future, no one south of the border seems to be giving the possibility of the SNP actually winning this referendum a second thought. The Labour hierarchy, traumatised by their drubbing in England in the European and local elections and their embarrassing loss to the Tories in Wales, seem remarkably complacent about their equally catastrophic showing in Scotland, where the SNP beat them by 9 per cent and increased their share of the vote by 10 per cent. It has been widely noted that parties of government across Europe only escaped the wrath of the voters if they were on the centre-right (as in France, Germany, Italy); governing parties of the centre-left (Spain, England) got hammered. But there is one striking exception: Scotland, where a governing party of the centre-left (certainly to the left of Labour) won handsomely. The Labour government in Westminster should be terrified.

Why? Well, assuming anything even close to the results of last Thursday's elections are reproduced in a general election next May, Labour will be trounced by the Tories in England (in some parts of the country it has already disappeared as an electoral force altogether – in the South-East and South-West barely 1 in 30 registered voters chose to vote Labour), but will also lose seats in Scotland to the SNP, where the Tories are unlikely to make many gains. So a 2010 referendum may well take place with the SNP riding high in Scotland, the Tories in total charge in England, and Labour squeezed out in both. Scots are hardly likely to be reconciled to the Union by the sight of a David Cameron government with a huge Westminster majority but only a handful of Scottish MPs. Nor is it certain that a Cameron government, faced with the possibility of Scottish independence, will be in any position to resist – the more Machiavellian among them may even see this as an opportunity to kill off the Labour party once and for all, since deprived of its Scottish base in Westminster the Labour Party ceases to have any plausible hold on power.

Of course, none of this is certain to happen. A 2010 referendum on Scottish independence looks highly unpredictable from this distance, but that's the point – it is now genuinely unpredictable which way such a vote might go, yet the Labour Party still seems to be assuming that when it comes to the crunch Scots will never vote for independence, just as they seem to be assuming that Labour's vote in Scotland will return when it really matters. I wouldn't be so sure. You would at least hope that there is someone thinking strategically about the possible scenarios here. It's not easy to know what Labour can do, and there are no easy get-outs: an alternative English leader like Alan Johnson might shore up the English vote but would probably alienate the Scots, whereas an alternative Scottish leader like John Reid might offer more resistance to the SNP but is unlikely to gain much traction down south. Still, sleepwalking to disaster with Gordon Brown doesn't just risk the future of the Labour Party, it risks the future of the United Kingdom as well. And since the Labour Party only really has a future if the UK holds together, the two things may turn out to be one and the same.


  • 26 June 2009 at 7:22pm
    Phil Edwards says:
    Scotland, where a governing party of the centre-left (certainly to the left of Labour) won handsomely

    Unlike Wales, which got the Tories and UKIP - just like England. Another strike against the parallel between the two Celtic countries beloved of Welsh nationalists.

    parties of government across Europe only escaped the wrath of the voters if they were on the centre-right (as in France, Germany, Italy)

    The result in Italy was seen as rather good by the Left & alarmingly poor by the Right, on the grounds that the Right (not including the former Christian Democrats) had been projecting 55-60% of the vote and actually got slightly less than 50%. Perhaps that's not so much a counter-example, more one for the Peculiarities of the Italians file.