SCOTTISH Labour may be drawing back from its absolute opposition to an independence referendum after polls suggest the party is on course for devastating losses at next year’s Holyrood election.
Alex Rowley, shadow cabinet secretary for Brexit and constitutional relations, did not say he rejected a new vote in comments he gave to the Sunday National, preferring to underline that he did not believe there would be a plebiscite soon or while Scotland is in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
He also hinted about the possibility of the party backing a new referendum if a three option ballot allowed voters to choose “devolution max” rather than voting for independence or the Union.
He pointed to a statement made by Labour’s ruling Scottish Executive Committee (SEC) in June which stated that “it is the sovereign right of the people of Scotland to determine their future, and the right of the people of Scotland to determine the form of government suited to their needs”.
The Labour MSP is a close ally to party leader Richard Leonard and backs more powers for Holyrood within a reformed UK.
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“I do not think that there will be a referendum anytime soon and it is difficult to see a referendum in the foreseeable future given the public health crisis and as a result, economic crisis that is coming towards us, not to mention Brexit and the very real threats that will bring,” Rowley told the Sunday National.
“Scottish Labour is clear through its Scottish Executive policy statement that: ‘It is the sovereign right of the people of Scotland to determine their future, and the right of the people of Scotland to determine the form of government suited to their needs’.”
He stated: “So it is for Scottish Labour to make the case for UK reform and do so in partnership with the nations and regions of the UK. The status quo is not an option, it is broken and people have lost confidence in the UK system of government, not just from Scotland but increasingly across many parts of the UK.
“So we have a clear constitutional position from the SNP which is independence, and from the Tories which is the status quo and indeed a rolling back of devolution, and I am arguing it is for Labour to set out its case for greater devolution but also for the complete reform of government across the United Kingdom.”
Rowley added: “If a referendum is held therefore at any point in the future on how Scotland is governed, the option of greater devolution within a re-constituted United Kingdom would be part of that discussion and debate and a very real option for the people of Scotland to consider.”
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In January, Scottish Labour’s executive rejected Leonard’s proposals for a special conference on federalism, which could have seen it support a multi-option referendum on independence. But Rowley’s comments to the Sunday National suggest the idea is gaining ground again at the most senior levels of the party.
In June, Labour’s SEC announced the party would oppose a second independence referendum in the run up to the 2021 Holyrood election, following a review of its General Election performance when the party was left with a single MP in Scotland.
This stance was meant clarify its constitutional policy after Labour under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership took the view that while it opposed indyref2, it would not block a referendum if Scots backed a new vote.
The position announced in June to oppose a second independence referendum angered Yes activists who had joined Labour under Corbyn. A number of activists quit the party publicly.
Last week Brian Roy, a former general secretary of Scottish Labour, raised his concern over the party’s opposition to a second independence referendum after a new poll found 58% of Scots would vote for independence and 64% thought the UK Government “should allow” a referendum if the SNP won a majority in the May election. He tweeted: “Scottish Labour’s outright opposition to a second independence referendum is looking increasingly unsustainable. You can oppose indy and indyref2 while still accepting its democratic legitimacy. The question now, for me, is how and when another vote should take place.”
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The survey, carried out by Ipsos Mori for STV, put Labour on course to get just 13% of the constituency and regional vote at next year’s Scottish Parliament election – down from 23% and 19% respectively in 2016.
Last month, Labour leader Keir Starmer appeared to soften his stance against a new independence referendum, echoing the words of Theresa May in insisting now is not the time for one. After the December election, Labour MSPs Monica Lennon and Neil Findlay said their party should back an independence vote.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is to publish a draft referendum bill setting out the terms, question and timing of a new vote before the May election.