The election of Johann Lamont as Scottish Labour leader and Anas Sarwar as deputy leader doesn’t tell us much about the likely future policy direction of the party. There are promises about changing the party to reconnect it with society in general, and with groups including women and business in particular. However, this doesn’t give much by way of guidance about the future actions of Scottish Labour when it comes to its practical policies. About all we have are details of the new Labour front bench, which includes her defeated rival Ken Macintosh in the finance brief.
One area where Lamont does seem to have a position is the constitutional debate. Here, her position is somewhat confusing. On the one hand, she favours wider devolved powers, going beyond the Scotland bill proposals. On the other, she also appears to favour an early referendum on the straightforward issue of ‘devolution v. independence’, without an extended form of devolution being on offer first. She’s quoted in the Telegraph (here) as saying, ‘Separation and devolution are two completely different concepts which cannot be mixed together. One is not a stop on the way to the other.’ This aggressive approach is at best a high-risk strategy for a unionist party or politician.
For one thing, as I explained back in June HERE, the constitutional position offered by the unionist parties remains more distant from the views of the median Scottish voter than the SNP are. While that’s the case it will be very hard, for structural reasons, for the unionist side to win a referendum. All the agency factors in the world – a good campaign, possible flaws in the case for independence and so on won’t alter that. If there’s a well-organised and resourced SNP campaign, as seems likely, the challenge is all the greater. Any unionist party will be ill-advised to hasten a referendum campaign unless or until they can minimise that structural disadvantage. That means having an alternative to offer that is closer to the electorate’s views than the SNP’s position.
Second, while Lamont may be right in drawing a clear distinction between independence and devolution in abstract sense, that’s not how many see it. Academics would point to the blurred, fudged nature of these issues in the modern world. Scottish voters equally don’t see matters in that way either – they seem much clearer about there being a continuum of degrees of self-government. A forced-choice, two-option referendum in such circumstances may have its political attractions, but these are superficial ones. It implies yet more of the hard-edged approach to constitutional politics that we’ve seen since 2007 and which has done few favours to either a coherent debate, or the unionist position. The choices involved may be polarised, but the debate concerning them shouldn’t be.
Third, Lamont’s position disregards one of the biggest obstacles to securing enhanced devolution: the reluctance of the UK state at the centre to change. Even the limited provisions of the Scotland bill were only obtained after great political pressure was put on HM Treasury, because of the threat posed by the SNP. A ‘referendum, then enhanced devolution’ strategy may be mistrusted by Scottish voters because it essentially means jam tomorrow, but nothing today (or in the foreseeable future). But it also relieves that source of pressure on institutions like the Treasury. Letting the Treasury off the hook is a good way of making sure enhanced devolution never actually happens.
Lamont’s big task when it comes to these matters is to get Labour to the point where it has a workable plan for enhanced devolution, before moving to a referendum about Scotland’s constitutional future. We will see how energetically and effectively she takes on that job.