It has been a good week for the SNP. On two major issues – due to their own clarity of thought and the errors of others – they have banked clear political wins. On both issues the Labour Party by contrast looks contorted and confused.
First the UK-EU Deal.
Here Labour was making noises that it would back the Deal long before it was even agreed, and Starmer stated for certain he would whip Labour MPs to back it before the text had emerged, and Labour’s MPs are going to march through the Aye lobby knowing full well that the one day allocated to scrutiny of the Deal is deeply inadequate. By contrast the SNP waited until it was clear how Labour would behave, and then stated their MPs will vote against the Deal. The SNP’s argument is simple and clear: this Deal is not a good Deal for the UK or for Scotland, and as there is no danger of No Deal, we vote against. That has left the only Labour MP in Scotland, Ian Murray, tying himself in knots.
I am pretty sure that had there been a real danger of No Deal, the SNP would have behaved differently – abstaining or even voting in favour if necessary – but the way they approached this one is an example of their clarity of thinking and tactical nous. They know what they want – Scottish independence, and being in the EU. The Deal takes Britain too far away from the EU. So their starting stance is to oppose. They then look at the numbers, and work out what to do. And then communicate why they take the choice they made.
On Brexit Labour seems incapable of any clarity of thought. Its position in the Commons has to be a little more complex than the SNP’s – were Labour to vote against there would be the danger of No Deal, but their line – logically – should have been: “we respect the will of the British people to leave the EU, but that does not mean any old Deal is acceptable. This Deal is not as good as the Deal we would have negotiated, so we are against it. To vote against is too dangerous, as we are responsible and want to avoid No Deal, so we abstain.” Instead the party is blinded by some fuzzy and ill-defined notion of wanting to show to the British people that they are ‘getting Brexit done’, and that means any analysis of what is right or wrong now is beyond them. The party then looks tactically driven and cynical – it is doing the wrong thing, because it thinks it is incapable of communicating the right thing.
As if that were not enough, the SNP also has scored a win on Erasmus – only this time over the Tories. When the UK-EU Deal was concluded, that the UK was no longer in Erasmus was greeted with widespread dismay. And then surprise, surprise, the Scottish Government jumped on the issue – and said it intends to find a way to rejoin Erasmus. This can come as no surprise to anyone (even I had spotted this one – before the Deal was concluded). As Paul James Cardwell has correctly observed, actually finding a way for Scotland to get back into Erasmus is not at all simple, or even impossible, but that does not matter – this is a win-win for the SNP. If Scotland were to be back in Erasmus that is a win for Sturgeon and the SNP. Were it not to work, it would correctly be framed as the fault of Westminster for taking Scotland out of the scheme.
Where is Labour meanwhile in this debate? Shadow Education Minister Kate Green has put out a confused statement bemoaning the end of the UK participation in Erasmus, but not with any solid proposal as to what to do instead. And I can find nothing about the issue from any other Labour front bencher. Labour is absent from a key debate in UK politics this week, and an issue that will no doubt feature in the Scottish Parliament election campaign in spring. Does Labour have no policy on this issue? If not, then why not? Or it does have a view on the issue and is then too scared to express it. If so once more the party is contorted and timid – is it going to say so little when further Brexit issues crop up in the coming months, fearful that any critique of the Government will be seen in “red wall” seats as being against the ‘Get Brexit Done’ line?
Were the Labour Party clever it would learn from these two cases, start working out where its ethics are, and how to line those up with its everyday actions as the main opposition party. And do that with an eye on 2024. EU questions are not going to be going away in UK politics – it’s high time Labour stepped up. Otherwise its prospects in 2024 are going to suffer.