Scottish Labour after Dugdale and what comes next?

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, August 30th 2017

Scottish Labour used to offer certainty. It had its differences and divisions, but it was in the business of running Scotland, dominating local government and town halls, and was concerned with administration, holding office and doing practical things.

That seems a long time ago. Where did it all go wrong for Scottish Labour? The resignation of Kezia Dugdale means the party has gone through a staggering eight leaders in eighteen years, and will by the end of this year have a ninth.

Scottish Labour’s neverending crisis continues when things are looking up for the British party. Corbyn’s June election recovery made all of this more likely as Dugdale was on record as not supporting Corbyn in both his victorious leadership contests and many of Corbyn’s supporters haven’t forgotten or forgiven this.

British Labour are now making the political weather. The June election and rise in the party’s vote and seats, depriving the Tories of their majority and confidence, has given Corbyn a sense of belief. It has been an amazing transformation, for pre-June Corbyn was widely treated by the media with scorn and condescension. Suddenly such people are having to take him and the prospect of a Labour Government seriously.

In the last week Corbyn was in Scotland for a five-day visit which attracted lots of coverage – most of it positive – and ruffled the feathers of his political opponents inside and out of Labour.

Pre-election the Corbyn camp had written Scotland off. It was hostile and unfriendly territory and because of this they fought a negligible campaign. Now post-election they see it as back in play after six Labour gains in June, all from the SNP, along with a small rise in their vote – all of which was against the expectations of Labour and its opponents.

Corbyn’s trip saw him visit constituencies from the Western Isles to Glasgow and Edinburgh totaling eighteen seats – thirteen of which were SNP and five Labour gains in the June election – drawing criticism from the Nationalists that he was avoiding Tory seats. An SNP spokesperson said: ‘The fact that Jeremy Corbyn is only interested in taking seats from the SNP rather than the Tories tells you all you need to know about Labour’s priorities.’ That sounds a little rattled.

The SNP deliberately ignored that of the 64 seats Labour needs to win for a bare majority eighteen are in Scotland – and all are SNP held (with Corbyn visiting thirteen in the last few days). The all-important 64th seat that would give Corbyn the keys to Downing Street and an overall majority is East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow – with a 3,866 SNP majority. It is not until Labour’s 96th target seat that you reach a Tory one: Renfrewshire East (formerly Jim Murphy’s seat) currently held by the Tories with a 7,150 lead over third place Labour.

Corbyn held numerous events and meetings including a ‘Festival for Socialism’ rally at Glasgow University Union on Saturday past which in its style – poetry, live music, the emphasis on having a good time – drew inspiration from the non-SNP independence referendum movement. It was a sell out event of 500-600 people, with chants of ‘Oh, Jeremy Corbyn’ showing that the spirit of the Glastonbury rainbow nation has come north.

The audience was predominantly energised young people: the same cohort who three years ago were avidly pro-independence. In fact, it included some of the exact same people, judging by a number of Common Weal pro-independence tee-shirts.

The appeal of Corbyn is easy to understand at these rallies. His style is informal and upbeat filled with hope and an obvious humanity, far removed from the widespread left miserablism of claiming ‘we are all doomed’. He talks as no other senior Labour politician of recent times has. He tells them that the neo-liberal era of the last forty years has been a deceit and that trickle down economics is a fraud. Ed Miliband might have had a similar message, but with the language of a technocratic policy wonk. Corbyn cuts through with his simple homilies.

He tells stories of why the Labour movement was formed, talks about why solidarity matters and the power of internationalism from the Spanish Civil War to Vietnam, anti-apartheid and Palestine. He quotes Keir Hardie and Chilean musician Victor Jara. He even has his own stories of how he has triumphed over adversity. This includes winning and rewinning the Labour leadership, the June election when no one gave him a chance, and how he has turned the tables on the Tories.

There is selective amnesia. The person introducing Corbyn, Danielle Rowley, newly elected MP for Midlothian, told the crowd that people in the election ‘voted for Jeremy’ and that when he entered the Commons after the election, the silence on the Tory side and cheers on Labour’s showed ‘the Tories were divided’ and ‘Labour united behind Jeremy’.

Corbyn’s speech was short on detail and the big issues of the day. There was nothing on Trident – as Corbyn is against it but UK Labour for it. Nor was there anything on Scottish independence and the SNP. And there is not a single word on the defining issue of the moment: Brexit. This despite being heckled towards the end of his speech to ‘say something on Brexit’ and that on the same Saturday evening, Keir Stammer had just made a major shift in Labour Brexit policy.

Corbyn may not say much on Scotland at this rally, beyond history and a reference to Glasgow’s health inequalities which is short on facts, but elsewhere in his trip he has been creating waves, not all completely helpful for his cause.

There was the misspeak in an interview with STV’s Bernard Ponsonby where Corbyn talked of the UK as ‘the nations and regions of England’. If that could be dismissed there was the inability to understand that there is already a separate Scottish legal system with Corbyn asking in reference to Brexit: ‘Could you have a separate economic and legal system in different parts of the UK?’ and answering himself: ‘I think that becomes difficult and very problematic. I want a Labour Government that is going to legislate better working conditions for everybody across the UK.’

If that weren’t enough there was the now frequent vague invoking of federalism – with Corbyn stating Labour were open to ‘all options around devolution’ – with no detail or sense of direction of travel. Labour have been playing with federalist mood music since the late stages of the indyref. That’s over three years with no plans forthcoming.

As for the revealing misspeaks and inelegantly put phases, Corbyn has a whole cupboard, having several times indicated how relaxed he is about independence or a second independence referendum. Corbyn doesn’t really do detail or soundbites, but there is now a pattern of hit and miss on Scotland.

So far there has been no sign of any strategy in Scotland to build on the success of June and take on the still powerful but shellshocked Nationalists. Corbynistas north of the border have blamed this on Kezia Dugdale who they have consistently claimed has little traction and political punch. The Corbynista faction, organised around the Campaign for Socialism and the likes of Lothian MSP Neil Findlay, aspire to Corbynise the party and change the leadership, but seem short of their own ideas. Findlay has said he will not stand for the leadership again (as he stood and lost to Jim Murphy in 2014), but with a sudden vacancy her left-wing critics will now have to put up or shut up.

Labour’s predicament in Scotland goes deeper than whichever faction is running the show or who is leader. The surge of members and grass root energy which down south has galvinised Labour membership just hasn’t happened in Scotland. It isn’t an accident that Momentum don’t organise in Scotland and, instead the Corbyn camp coalesce in the small Campaign for Socialism established in 1994 in opposition to Tony Blair.

Scottish Labour has been given an unexpected shot in the arm. Its gain of six seats from the SNP and rise in votes came after years of decline and being written off. The latter its opponents say was only 9,860 votes and 2.8%, but until June the party was fighting for its life. Yet despite this neither Corbyn or any faction of Scottish Labour, pro or anti-UK leadership, has given any indication that they know what to do with this reprieve and opportunity.

Corbyn’s camp now recognise that Scotland is one of the keys to forming a future government. But so far, for all the June surprise of the Corbyn Scottish surge, there is little sign that Corbyn or Labour know what to do in Scotland. They have earned the right to be listened too and that is progress. Scotland is unpredictable again and may yet prove to be one of the decisive electoral landscapes in the future of Britain. The road to Downing Street may turn out to run through East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmaghow, but Scottish Labour has yet to show it can stand on its own feet as an electoral machine and challenge the SNP and Tories.

Where does this end for Scottish Labour? Leader number nine is as unlikely as the previous eight to be able to mark out a strategy and turnaround the party. Labour are away to begin their sixth leadership contest since it lost office to the SNP in 2007: a period which has seen the party diminished and demoralised and lose the sense of certainty which once defined it. Whether so-called moderates or a Corbynista backed candidate emerge triumphant, the party still has to adapt to its third place status and become a voice which rails against establishment Scotland. Ten years into opposition it has barely begun this change.