Tuesday 31 July 2012

Cracks in the unionist façade?

Labour for Independence
Surely one of the more significant recent developments in Scotland's independence referendum campaign has been the rise to prominence of the Labour for Independence group founded by Allan Grogan. A measure of just how significant is the shrill vehemence of "Scottish" Labour's insistence that the group is of no significance at all. But we have to suspect that this dismissal has more to do with blinkered wishful thinking than any reasoned assessment of the potential implications of this rejection of the party line. Such dissent is the seed from which revolutions grow. And the Labour Party has historically proved to be fertile ground for a rich crop of factionalism. At least until it was struck by the devastating blight of the New Labour project.

Observers of the Scottish political scene have long been aware that support for independence crossed party lines. It must be so because such fundamental constitutional issues transcend party politics. Neither position on the question of independence is inherently incompatible with the contrasting world-views which inform the left-right political spectrum. So it should not be too surprising to find support for independence among Labour or even Conservative voters. Independence offers no necessary impediment to the pursuit of any political agenda. No core principles or values of any mainstream ideology need be abandoned in order to embrace Scotland's civic nationalism. Support for, or opposition to independence is a choice which can be made irrespective of where an individual's political compass points. It is a choice which certainly should not be constrained by mere partisan tribalism.

So it has never been a question of whether there might be support for independence among Labour voters in Scotland. It is, rather, a question of the extent of that support and whether it can find a voice. Allan Grogan's efforts appear to have now provided that voice. It's still too early to tell how many will join in. But, insofar as one can judge from social media activity, the early signs are promising. Where the movement goes from here depends on a number of factors.

Labour for Independence will have to contend with the resistance of die-hard party members as well as what will surely be increasing hostility from the mainstream media. But the former has been weakened over recent years - not least by Labour's formal alliance with the Tories. And the latter is likely to be fairly muted so long as the party is reluctant to risk alienating members and supporters by outright condemnation of the "rebels".

In its favour, Labour for Independence will enjoy whatever support it is willing to accept from the Yes Scotland campaign. And it is precisely the kind of movement which thrives on social media.

But it may be the SNP which provides Labour for Independence with its biggest boost - albeit quite inadvertently. Up to now, it has been fairly easy for all but the most mindlessly devoted Labour voters to transfer, or envisage transferring, their allegiance to the SNP as a token of their support for independence. Despite the fanatical anti-SNP ranting of the party leadership, most "ordinary" Labour voters are not seriously uncomfortable with the left-of-centre policies of the SNP. As is evidenced by last year's election result. But this relationship is tenuous at best. If the SNP is perceived as moving even slightly to the right on issues such as NATO then the relationship may break down. And if it does, those Labour supporters who were previously relaxed about using the SNP as a vehicle for their nationalist aspirations will start looking around for an alternative. Labour for Independence is the obvious choice.

There is a certain delicious irony in the fact that, as unionist newspapers such as The Scotsman seek to exaggerate the SNP's policy shifts, so they will increase the attractiveness of the Labour for Independence group. What may at present be regarded as nothing more than a small crack in the British Labour Party's unionist façade undoubtedly has the potential to become a major split.
And if only one senior figure from "Scottish" Labour lends support to the "rebels", that split could very quickly become a yawning gap.

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