After the Scottish Tories survived an election in 1992 that all proper-thinking Scots ‘knew’ would annihilate them north of the border, Scottish Labour decided to go large on a strategy they’d always liked: pour some nationalism into your socialism. Have all your media friends preach that it was unScottish to be Tory. It worked. Labour’s vote in Scotland, always efficient, both grew and delivered a lot of Westminster seats for its size. Greedily, Labour decided to gerrymander this productive vote: Scots would have two parliaments, so they could both vote for Labour to rule Scotland from the Scottish one in Edinburgh and vote for Labour to rule England from the British one in Westminster. And to keep the ball rolling, they kept pouring nationalism into their list of reasons for Scots to vote Labour.
The party of the future can never foresee it. The Scots parliament proved the perfect incubator for a Scottish National Party that could outdo Labour in nationalism and rival it in socialism. As soon as Labour lost power in Westminster, the nationalist end of their vote had no reason to stay with them. And precisely because Scotland’s political geography made Scottish Labour’s Westminster vote very efficient, losing enough of it to the SNP crossed a threshold and made it very inefficient (for Labour – very efficient for the SNP). All of which surprised Labour a lot as they went from 41 Scottish seats to 1 in five years.
South of the border, no-one could accuse Labour of English or British nationalism. (A different prejudice, pandering to a different set of voters, is what brings the word ‘national’ to mind when one thinks of Labour’s socialism down south.) But the SNP’s “blame the English for our failures” style of nationalism still gives Labour a problem. Before the SNP ate Labour’s lunch in Scotland, an English voter could vote Labour and get a Labour government that included Labour MPs from Scotland. Now, Labour can only hope for a Westminster government in alliance with SNP MPs owing no loyalty to Labour – the tail that will wag the dog. Some English voters will say they’d be better off without those Scottish SNP MPs giving Labour a chance. But the more they mean it, the less they’ll vote Labour – so the less they’ll cause it. The tail would try and cut itself off the dog – but would likely fail and would take years, so why would anyone south of the border vote for five years of Labour to attempt that?
So Labour have a difficult circle to square. Unless they can replace the SNP in Scotland, everyone can see that their hope of being a government in Westminster depends on allying with them. But until they look like they could be a government in Westminster without the SNP, they lack arguments why those Scots they ‘nationalised’ should vote for them instead of the SNP. And while they have the SNP-alliance albatross on their backs, they have a deservedly hard time persuading English voters.