Euan McColm: Don’t expect branch office to save Labour again

John Smith and Robin Cook at a Labour Party conference in Blackpool at a time when leader Neil Kinnock was fighting to make the party electable. Picture: PA
John Smith and Robin Cook at a Labour Party conference in Blackpool at a time when leader Neil Kinnock was fighting to make the party electable. Picture: PA
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For much of the 1980s, the Labour Party lost its mind. Unable to understand the appeal of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives, Labour believed that only a shift to the left would win over a sceptical electorate. Right-leaning tabloids caricatured the official opposition as “loony lefties”. This relentless ridicule was not always unjustified. The behaviour of some Labour councillors – in Liverpool, for example, where militants used taxis to deliver redundancy notices – was frequently appalling.

Neil Kinnock, who succeeded Michael Foot as leader in 1983, spent years battling Militant entryists, eventually winning and banishing them from the party. What a mess Labour was in.

With hindsight, one can easily make the case that while the UK Labour Party was tearing itself apart, members in Scotland saved it from itself. A group of serious thinkers – among them Gordon Brown, George Robertson, and the late Robin Cook, John Smith and Donald Dewar – ensured that even while the left and right wings of the party were at war, new ideas were being discussed and new policies developed.

Smith’s election as leader in 1992 and his replacement, after his death two years later, by Tony Blair were only possible because moderates (the name we give to Labour politicians who express an interest in winning over voters) in Scotland kept their heads while, south of the border, party colleagues were losing theirs. Political opponents might dismiss Scottish Labour as a “branch office” of the UK party; in the 1980s, that “branch office” was crucial to the party’s revival.

The UK Labour Party in 2017 bears more than a passing resemblance to the one of 30 years ago. Even some of the players are the same. John McDonnell, for example, now shadow chancellor, but in the 80s a close ally of Ken Livingstone, then leader of the Greater London Council, and a troublemaker of some repute.

Yes, I know that supporters of the current leader, Jeremy Corbyn, insist that he is a winner, that only his kind of politics – forged over Vesta curries in a monochrome past – can take their party into government. But the inconvenient reality remains that even though Theresa May, by some distance the worst campaigner in living memory, was unable to win an overall majority in June’s general election, she was able comfortably to prevent Labour from coming anywhere close.

Kezia Dugdale is not a Corbynista. She is, unfashionably, a pragmatist who retains the belief that elections are won and lost on the centre ground.

Until Wednesday morning, Dugdale was a barrier against the far-left tide that has engulfed Labour across England and is, right now, gaining momentum in Scotland.

Dugdale’s decision to quit as Scottish Labour leader has huge implications for the future of the party. A reluctant leader who put herself forward for the position out of a sense of duty after her predecessor, Jim Murphy, lost his seat in the SNP’s 2015 general election landslide, Dugdale had grown into the role. She became more confident, delivered some very good performances at First Minister’s Question Time and – crucially – had built a pretty high profile for the leader of what is now the third party of Scotland.

Those being touted as possible successors are relative unknowns. Anas Sarwar, formerly deputy leader under Johann Lamont, is the name on the lips of “moderates”.

Sarwar, an affable former MP who was elected to Holyrood last year, holds dangerously mainstream views. He looks at the SNP, with its popular, centre-ground agenda, and reckons that’s where the fight is.

He may or may not be right. Corbynistas say that the way to defeat the SNP is to outflank it on the left. The line goes something like: the SNP isn’t really the left-wing party it says it is – if you want real socialist policies, vote Labour.

What those on Labour’s left might have missed is that voters seem quite happy with the SNP not really being the left-wing party it says it is. SNP supporters are quite happy to celebrate middle class dividends like free university tuition and prescriptions as radical and progressive while arguing that any move to raise taxes would be an assault on the poor.

The SNP rose to power using rhetoric that made us feel good about our uniquely Scottish compassion while enacting policies that appealed entirely to the self-interest of more affluent voters. I’m not criticising them for it – it was quite brilliant campaigning. The Scottish nationalists’ did not defeat Labour on the left but on the centre ground.

Scottish Labour’s Corbynistas appear to think MSP Richard Leonard, a former union organiser, is the man to replace Dugdale. A comparatively unknown quantity, Leonard moves in Labour Party circles where the trio of election victories achieved by Tony Blair is considered a source of shame.

Perhaps the time has come for Scottish Labour to go the way of the UK party and take a dramatic turn to the left. Dugdale won the Labour leadership election in 2015 against Ken Macintosh, the ghost of C3PO in a Crombie. There was no far left candidate, just two moderates.

The story goes that there has not, in Scotland, been the same degree of activity by the pro-Corbyn group, Momentum, as there has in England and that, therefore, local constituency parties are not yet in the control of far-left activists. This may be so, but I increasingly hear from party members who see that changing.

Influential Corbynista MSPs such as Neil Findlay – whose own bid for leadership failed in 2014 – have the ears of growing numbers of Momentum activists. Moderate Scottish Labour members should not rule out the possibility that their day has been and gone. Three decades ago, Scottish Labour stood fast against a far-left tendency in England that threatened to make the party unelectable in perpetuity. Now, it faces similar pressure to move away from the centre.

This time around, the moderates in Scottish Labour may not be able to withstand the pressure.