Ian Murray MP: Row over Labour's independence policy is an unnecessary distraction

Posted On: 
9th August 2019

John McDonnell should stop freelancing and stick to Labour's agreed policy on a second Scottish referendum, argues Ian Murray MP.

John McDonnell sparked a row with his comments at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Credit: 
PA Images

A key component in the recipe that is party politics is collective responsibility. It ensures that when a decision is made in Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet it is collectively promoted by all, regardless of personal view. This is particularly true of party policy. That’s just the rule. 

That was partly the reason why I, and many of my colleagues, were so shocked and angry that John McDonnell appeared at the Edinburgh Festival and freelanced on Labour policy on a second independence referendum. Now, I could go into all the arguments about the detail of the policy and why he was wrong to say a future Labour government would grant a second independence referendum, but the point is that he is not entitled to a personal opinion. He must follow party policy or propose changing it through the proper processes or resign.

The Shadow Chancellor can’t just make up policy off the cuff. He was rightly slapped down by Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. The policy of the Scottish and UK Labour parties is that we will not allow a second independence referendum. End of story.

The remarkable thing is that both Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have championed the rights of ordinary members in order to “democratise” the party. That only seems to be when it suits. Every member was invited to take part in an online survey on extending air strikes into Syria. That suited the leadership. However, they have refused to repeat a similar exercise on their Brexit position or indeed this. Why? Because it doesn’t suit their agenda.

It’s also astonishing that they cite the 2017 general election manifesto as being the best in history. It did inspire voters and went down well on the doorsteps (even if it was just Ed Miliband’s with bells on). The policy on another independence referendum is in that manifesto and should be followed.

Then there are others who should be bound by the same collective responsibility. Shadow Scotland Office minister Paul Sweeney went on radio yesterday morning to provide his critique on the conditions in which a second independence referendum would be allowable, “If a majority of Scottish MSPs stand on a manifesto that is very decisively and clear as a campaign issue that they want a second referendum ... then it's very difficult to block that”, he said. That is not the policy.

Then we have Lesley Laird, the Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, deputy leader of the Scottish Labour Party, chair of the Scottish Policy Forum and head of the Scottish Party Internal Review. If anyone was bound by collective responsibility then surely it must be someone with all those duties? But what does Lesley Laird do? The Shadow Chancellor has aired a new policy without reference to the Policy Forum she chairs. Her junior shadow minister has freelanced on the radio. Her leader, that she deputises for, has restated the policy. What does she do? One way or other she has to break collective responsibility. I hope she sticks by the policy.

Then we have the Scottish MSPs group who, rightly and bravely, issue a strong statement in defence of Richard Leonard and the manifesto policy. This was agreed as an executive and was issued to the media. The statement was instantly denounced by other Scottish Labour MSPs who support McDonnell rather than the policy.

The outcome is an almighty and unnecessary row on a policy that has long since been settled. It was settled in this way for a principled purpose. We’ve had a decisive, clear and fair referendum already. We don’t need another.  I don’t understand why John McDonnell did this. It’s opened up questions about working with the SNP. When no “deal” needs to be done unless they want to pull down a minority Labour government in favour of the Tories. I don’t think the SNP will repeat what they did in 1979 when they brought down the Labour Government for 18 years of Tory rule. 

No deals need to be done so what are McDonnell’s motivations? One thing is for sure, this row distracts from where the focus should really be - the Scottish Tories. Their Brexit is fanning the flames of the independence movement and they are as big a threat to the UK as any nationalist.  McDonnell has just let them off the hook and boosted the once extinct Lib Dems. And here was me thinking he wanted to win the next election.

Ian Murray is the MP for Edinburgh South and a former Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland