Alex Salmond appears to have the Labour Party exactly where he wants it. His recent claim that it is the responsibility of the opposition parties to define the terms of a devolution max question in the forthcoming independence referendum forces Labour into making a move it does not want to make. In the political chess game it’s the perfect zugzwang.
Devolution max would give the Scottish Parliament greater powers over taxation and other laws, while Westminster would retain responsibility for issues such as defence and monetary policy. However, Labour’s current approach appears to focus on promoting the benefits to Scotland of remaining within the Union, thus maintaining the status quo.
Our polling shows that two thirds of Scots would vote yes to the devolution max question in a referendum, while only a third would vote yes to a separate independence question. However, Labour supporters are less likely to support devolution max than supporters of other parties (57% of Labour supporters support devolution max compared to 85% of SNP supporters and 72% of Lib Dem supporters). Only Conservative supporters are less likely to support it.
This provides Labour with a strategic dilemma – does it campaign for devolution max in an attempt to engage with the wider Scottish electorate at the risk of alienating a considerable proportion its support? Or does it oppose both options to appease sections of its own supporters at the risk of seeming out of step with the wider Scottish electorate?
In recent weeks several senior party figures, most notably the former First Minister Henry McLeish, have suggested that the party should campaign for devolution max as a way of countering the SNP’s push for full independence. Doing so could allow Labour to control the debate and campaign to win a new devolution settlement that reflects the public’s preferences. This may help to show that it understands Scottish public opinion and give the party a boost ahead of post-referendum elections.
The danger is, of course, that promoting devolution max will be seen as pandering to the SNP by moving the debate closer to its ultimate aim of separation. This could make it difficult for Labour to persuade sceptics within the party that devolution max is the right approach. Opposition to independence is stronger among Labour supporters than Scots in general (83% of Labour supporters oppose independence compared to 60% of Scots). Therefore, any policy that looks as though it might lead to independence may seem like an act of betrayal to sections of its core support.
As such, the SNP currently have control of the board, but it is up to Labour to ensure the next few moves do not result in checkmate.
Christopher Mclean is a research executive at Ipsos MORI