JANUARY is a quiet month politically. Rishi Sunak came to Scotland for a flying visit during which he was well isolated from actually meeting any of the electorate. The SNP are discussing what strategy to adopt for promoting independence after the next General Election.

Alas, there is little possibility of such an election till late next year at the earliest, so this debate is more displacement than anything else.

Then there is Sir Keir boring away for England – boring being the operative term. Welcome to politics, 2023-style.

We are in a waiting game. Nothing is fixed politically. Boris has gone and Liz is a distant memory. But nothing is actually happening. The UK economy remains in the doldrums with nobody in any party willing to take policy risks to sort it.

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Expect UK productivity to remain in the pits where it has been since 2008. Everyone talks about growth, but no one does anything about it. Which leaves us permanently shy of the resources to fix the NHS or reboot our failing welfare services.

Just what is the mood of the electorate during this politically somnambulant moment? The first polls of 2023 (conducted by Survation) show only marginal movements. True, in the Holyrood list vote, the SNP are down seven points from its historic victory in 2021. But most of that shift has gone to the pro-indy Greens, who are up four percentage points, which is statistically significant, with Alba up one.

The same poll shows Scottish Labour have gained eight points compared to their 2021 result in the regional lists, but this is a straight swap with the Tories, who are down precisely eight percentage points.

This is bad news for Sir Keir and Anas Sarwar (below). The Labour revival in Scotland is premised on recovering pro-Union votes the party lost to the Tories in earlier years, a straight switch. Labour are not – so far – eating into the working-class indy vote. If that remains the case, Sir Keir is not in line to win extra seats in Scotland at the next Westminster elections. That will make forming a majority Labour government difficult.

The National: Sir Keir Starmer, seen with in Glasgow with Anas Sarwar, has pledged ‘change within the UK’ for Scotland (Photo: Jane Barlow/PA Wire)

There is slightly more hope for Labour if we look at the polling in the Holyrood constituencies. Here, in 2021, the Greens were absent. The latest Survation polling has Labour up seven points and the Tories down six. That’s much the same as for the lists. But the SNP are down only four points in the constituencies, if there is no Green option. That suggests the SNP vote remains fairly solid when it comes to first-past-the-post elections. If you want to use the next UK General Election as a surrogate independence referendum, that finding may give you some comfort.

What about the polling numbers for Westminster itself? The latest Survation data has the SNP on 4%, exactly what it polled in reality at the December 2022 General Election. That’s remarkable for a political party that’s been in office since 2007. This shows that the national question remains the basic political divide in Scotland despite the standard of living crisis or the mounting problems in the NHS.

Starmer can rant and Sunak can rave but the bulk of the Scottish electorate are unmoved – they vote primarily for or against the Union. And as long as the Unionist parties are divided, the SNP will win.

Again, good news for those who want to use the election as a surrogate referendum.

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On the other hand, the relative stasis in Westminster voting intentions leaves the Unionists with the upper hand. What has changed to force them into granting independence negotiations?

Absolutely nothing. In fact, the time for that option might have been the 2015 UK General Election, when the nationalist camp did – by a whisker – poll more than 50% of the poplar vote. But on this January’s polling evidence, the indy camp will likely poll five or six points less than a majority of the popular vote, at the next UK election. That won’t move Sir Keir or Rishi.

It appears the SNP leadership is going to offer party members (at its March special conference) the option of declaring that winning a clear majority of seats at the next Westminster election should be taken as the mandate for independence negotiations.

A December Savanta poll gave the SNP an extra seven seats, or 55 of the 57 Scottish Westminster constituencies, on current voting intentions. However, the same Savanta polling gave Labour a 314-seat overall majority at Westminster, which would effectively marginalise the SNP contingent.

However, not all pollsters believe that Labour will gain an overall majority, first time around. Much depends on by how far the Tories narrow the present polling gap over the next 18 months. Labour at present hold a 20-point lead but that will not survive the rigours of an actual election campaign. The prospects for possible independence negotiations are obviously transformed if the SNP wins the vast bulk of Scottish constituencies (together with a near majority of the popular vote) and Labour form a minority administration dependent on SNP support. That would be the political sweet spot.

The National: Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer

For precisely that reason, Starmer (above) will spend the coming election season declaring his opposition to any accommodation with the SNP. Which suggests we need to discuss now the tactics to be used should a Labour government try to avoid respecting the will of the Scottish electorate.

Starmer will doubtless attempt to put the SNP MPs in the position of either supporting his administration or helping the Tories – calculating that supporting the Conservative opposition will lose the SNP support at home. But there is an obvious way out of this trap.

Rather than let Starmer force on the SNP MPs a daily choice between supporting Labour or backing the Tories de facto, the SNP could simply boycott Westminster until constitutional talks are agreed. That way the SNP cannot be associated with any particular vote in the Commons, to back Labour or not. SNP MPs can do what Sinn Fein MPs do and work for their constituents at their Westminster offices but they should simply refuse to take the oath to the Crown or attend the Commons chamber until some form of constitutional discussions are accepted.

This strategy needs to be backed up with a popular mobilisation in Scotland that indicates mass support for negotiations. This could include demonstrations; the calling of a national convention of all MPs, MSPs and local councils; non-co-operation between Scottish and UK government departments and agencies; and – ultimately – campaigns of mass civil disobedience, such as the non-payment of the BBC licence fee. A strategy that is confined only to Westminster is bound to fail.

My point is that there is an advantage to this seeming lull in UK politics. Namely, that the national movement in Scotland has to seize the agenda, not just adopt a passive “wait for the election” approach.

If the coming General Election is going to be an implicit referendum on our constitutional future, then that campaign has to start now. And we have to be prepared to boycott Westminster in order to force the pace of constitutional talks.

Otherwise we are whistling in the political wind.