Crunch time for Scots Labour as Corbyn heads north

Corbyn speaks at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre last month ahead of the leadership election. Picture: Steven Scott Taylor
Corbyn speaks at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre last month ahead of the leadership election. Picture: Steven Scott Taylor
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Colleagues who share Kezia Dugdale’s scepticism about her new boss are wondering how she can avert a PR disaster when he makes his first visit here as leader, writes Euan McColm

‘WE’RE completely screw­ed,” according to one Labour MSP.

How can the leader of the party enforce discipline with that record?

Kezia Dugdale

“We can make this work,” according to another.

Just a week after Jeremy Corbyn was elected as leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, his colleagues in Scotland are divided over what he means for their prospects.

For some – though not many – he is a potential saviour whose political ideology will help them outflank the SNP on the left.

To others, Corbyn adds to their woes; he’s an unelectable leader who’ll ensure further Tory success at Westminster and do nothing to prevent an SNP majority in next May’s Holyrood elections.

His decision to appoint disgraced Scottish peer Lord Watson – jailed for fire-raising in 2005 – as spokesman for education will only have confirmed their worst fears.

Corbyn is expected to come to Scotland this week (an exact date has not been pinned down – “His diary is fluid,” says a Labour source) to meet Labour’s Scottish leader, Kezia Dugdale. Their discussion promises to be interesting, if not entirely comfortable.

Jez and Kez are not natural allies. She did not favour him in Labour’s leadership election. In August, she said that though there were many in her party who were prepared to say that it didn’t matter if he didn’t look like a prime minister, she wanted there to be a Labour government. She added: “Otherwise I’m wasting my time. I don’t want to spend my whole life just carping from the sidelines.

“So you have to convince me that he can be [prime minister]. Here’s a guy that’s broken the whip 500 times. So how can the leader of the party enforce discipline with that record?”

Finding those among Dugdale’s colleagues with a more optimistic view is not easy.

There is Neil Findlay, the Lothians MSP who ran Corbyn’s campaign in Scotland and last week wrote that the SNP fears Labour under its new left-wing leader.

“Jeremy’s campaign was based on values with a fresh focus on a future of hope and ambition for all our people,” wrote Findlay, “He has gained huge public respect for that approach.

But others are cautious.

One MSP said: “I want this to work out because it has to work out. The SNP has talked a left-wing game without playing it left-wing at all and maybe we will seem more authentic.

“The thing we don’t know yet is whether people seriously want a real left-wing party in government. We haven’t had one so far and when we see Jeremy talking about raising taxes are we going to be able to bring people with us? I’m not sure we are.

“It’s one thing for people to agree in principle that they want to see big earners taxed more heavily but for a lot of people the reality is that it makes them nervous.

“People might not be earning high salaries but they are ambitious and want to be, and if it looks like they are going to be punished for success then are they going to be attracted to us? I don’t know.”

Even from someone who is committed to making Corbyn’s leadership a success, then, there is no great excitement about his victory. It seems more a case of hoping for the best rather than banking on it.

It is easier – far easier – to find Labour MSPs and veteran members who believe Corbyn will be a disaster for the party. Those critics – like the few who are trying to remain optimistic – are wary of going on the record when discussing the new leader. There is a clear sense of unease about dis­cussing life in Labour under Corbyn.

One Labour MSP said: “If anyone says this is good news because we can outflank the SNP on the left, then they’re not thinking straight.

“The SNP doesn’t really present a left-wing politics, it just says to people ‘you’re compassionate and wonderful’ and people lap it up.

“There isn’t a majority out there for paying more tax and hiking up benefits. If there was, then the SNP would be doing those things.

“There’s a majority out there that wants to feel good about themselves and to get on in life and the SNP absolutely talks to them.

“The rhetoric is left wing but the politics are centre ground. The SNP is New Labour with nationalism added and there’s no way an Old Labour offer is going to counter it. I despair at anyone who thinks that’s going to happen.

“We’re completely screwed if we’re pinning our hopes on winning on an out of date agenda.”

According to one long-serving activist, as well as the politics there are the associations Corbyn has made over the years that present a problem.

“It’s not just about whether Labour will win, but about whether people will stay in the party. For me, it’s about anti-Semitism. Corbyn’s called groups like Hamas and Hezbollah his friends and that’s indefensible.

“His people can spin that he was reaching out to these people to try to help bring about peace between Israel and ­Palestine but that doesn’t 
stack up.

“He has associations with groups that are anti-Semitic and if someone asks me how I can stay in a party led by a man like that then I don’t have a good answer for them.”

Corbyn’s shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, this week apologised for comments he made in 2003 calling for IRA terrorists to be honoured. He claimed that he was trying to help achieve peace in Ulster.

This campaigner is not buying that explanation.

“He was a backbench MP with no locus in the peace process. So much for the Corbynistas being about a new politics with no spin or triangulation. McDonnell’s explanation for what he said and why he said it was pure spin designed to get him over a hump.

“But supporting the IRA is a big hump to get over. People didn’t like the IRA.”

For the more moderate Dugdale, the direction in which Corbyn takes the party may be problematic, according to a senior Scottish Tory source.

“Scottish Labour’s big reputational problem is that it’s seen as a branch office of the party in London. It’s the thing the SNP throws at them again and again.

“Kez is a fairly mainstream politician. She stands in the centre ground but can she do that if the party in the UK is further to the left?

“The danger for her is that she ends up going left and being accused of doing Jeremy’s bidding. And if she doesn’t go left then the story is that the ­Labour Party isn’t united.”

The Scottish Tories are cautiously optimistic that they might stand to benefit from more Labour turmoil.

“We’re the only ones who can claim to be a united party of the Union now, and that’s a powerful message. We’ll be making that case in the Holyrood elections next year and it’s a strong one. We have a ­story to tell.”

The possibility of the Tories benefiting from Corbyn’s election hasn’t escaped some Scottish Labour members.

One campaigner said: “I don’t know what our message for middle Scotland is. We could end up being the third largest party at Holyrood. The Tories could be the official opposition.

“I thought we had problems before but we have bigger ones, now. I don’t see how Kezia handles the differences between her and Corbyn without it getting messy.”

The SNP has already made clear its strategy to take on Corbyn.

Minutes after his election last weekend, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said that a now divided Labour party would mean more Tory governments at Westminster. That, she said, would add to the clamour for Scottish independence.

Former first minister Alex Salmond, appearing on BBC1’s Question Time on Thursday evening, said it was a fact of political life that divided parties could not win elections.

It’s an analysis with which some in Scottish Labour agree.

One MSP said: “They’re right. We’re divided and you can’t hide that. Everyone can try to put on a brave face and say we’re going to make this work but not enough of us believe that’s true.

“And what if we did believe Corbyn could win? That wouldn’t make that the case, it would just mean that even more of us were kidding ourselves.”

There has been talk, south of the Border, of new members – Corbynistas – getting together to remove as candidates MPs who are seen as New Labour. There can be no such purge in Scotland.

Dugdale has ensured that nobody who joined the party after early July will have a say in the selection of candidates for next year’s Holyrood election.

The consequence of that may be to draw a clear distinction between the direction of travel of the party in England and the party in Scotland.

One Labour MSP said: “We have to stay in the centre, no matter what Corbyn and his supporters want. We’re up against a centrist party and we have to fight them on their territory.

“Look, we’re going to lose next year. We’ll lose badly, I think, and we might even come below the Tories. It’s that bad. But if we shifted on to a real hard left track then we’d do even worse.

“We have to do what we can to keep the party alive. We’re not fighting to win next year, we’re fighting not to vanish off the map completely.”