IT IS a very long time indeed since the Scottish National Party showed the slightest sign of weakness. Yes, over recent years, the SNP has come up against scandal, seen policies fall apart, and even performed u-turns (in politics, always “humiliating”), but it has never appeared vulnerable.
It does now.
The SNP’s dreadful handling of the issue of tax credits – to be cut by the Conservatives – makes the party look fallible.
And Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale can take credit for this uncommon state of affairs. Dugdale used her speech to the Scottish Labour Party conference last weekend to promise that her party would, if it won next May’s Holyrood election, use the powers of the Scottish Parliament to reinstate tax credits to those who stand to lose them.
This was not so much a manifesto pledge (the chances of Labour winning remain slender) as it was a challenge to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. The SNP talks a good game on “protecting” Scots from the Tories at Westminster, here was the opportunity to do something rather than simply complaining.
The party’s response to Dugdale’s challenge was a mess. Initially, it said it could only act if tax credits were devolved to Holyrood. This, it transpired, was nonsense. New powers on their way to the Scottish Parliament will allow the Scottish Government to top up tax credits if it so desires.
The SNP was all over the place on the issue and Sturgeon endured a miserable First Minister’s Question Time, during which she seemed rattled.
She and her deputy, John Swinney, make a formidable double act yet they let the tax credits issue drift from their grasp. This is not the SNP we know.
The party should have seen the new powers pitfall ahead before making its claim of powerlessness. Some nationalists suggest that Sturgeon and Swinney are over-stretched. I hear of a tendency to micro-manage cabinet secretaries and a number of party members suggest that the Scottish Government has become too cautious. Having won considerable political capital, the SNP’s instinct is to hold on to it rather than gamble on potentially controversial policies.
This, then, should present an opportunity for Scottish Labour. Dugdale has led the way on the tax credit issue and Labour now has a policy that places it comfortably to the left of the SNP. The accusation that Labour is the “Red Tory” party doesn’t ring true.
But Scottish Labour would not be Scottish Labour if it was not contriving new ways to sabotage itself.
The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Ed Miliband’s successor has had its effect on the Scottish Party. Lothians MSP Neil Findlay – who ran Corbyn’s campaign in Scotland – is seen by some colleagues as the most senior figure in the Scottish Party.
Dugdale’s authority, say some colleagues, is under threat. One of her boldest acts on becoming leader of her party was to announce the re-opening of candidate selections. This means that no sitting Labour MSP is guaranteed to get another crack at Holyrood next year. Dugdale’s thinking was that there was too much dead wood in the parliamentary group and she could, perhaps, replace it with some bright, new talent.
Mindful of the more extreme views of many of those who joined the party in order to vote for Corbyn, Dugdale saw to it that only those who were members of the party before 4 July this year will be eligible to vote in forthcoming selections.
But there are mutterings among new members about challenging this ruling. We’ve paid our fees, runs the argument, and we should be entitled to a vote.
Whether this disquiet among the new grassroots leads to anything will depend on how Findlay reacts. He has considerable clout among Scottish Corbynistas and should he argue in favour of the existing deadline, it’s likely that it will remain. But if he could be persuaded to insist that the new members should have a say, the pressure on Dugdale to act would be considerable.
In those circumstances, how could she oppose allowing new members a vote in selections without facing the accusation she was behaving undemocratically?
The Scottish Labour Party remains in poor health but, at the very least, it has begun to explain itself. Dugdale’s speech to her conference was speckled with policies and it let Labour set the political agenda in a way it hasn’t done for years.
What Scottish Labour requires now, then, is a period of complete party discipline; discipline of the sort so clearly displayed by the SNP. Labour can ill afford a period of infighting between moderate and Corbynista members.
But, whether it’s good for the party or not, it looks like Scottish Labour is heading for a turbulent power struggle between two distinct factions.
There is a little optimism in Labour ranks this week after the party got the SNP on the run over tax credits. The nationalists are not without weak points, after all, and Dugdale has exposed one in all its quivering fleshiness.
But how effective can Dugdale be in the longer term if the party she leads is split?
She did not support Corbyn’s candidacy for the leadership of the UK Labour Party but she has, since his election, done a fair old job of making it appear she and Jez are political soulmates.
The reality is that Dugdale believes Labour’s route back to government in Scotland, if it is to be drawn, means taking on the SNP in the centre ground.
The First Minister is racing towards another SNP majority in next May’s election. Labour’s immediate challenge is to prevent that, while fending off a challenge to become the main opposition party from the Tories.
Kezia Dugdale has shown herself capable of some clever politics over the tax credits issue but that good work will come to nothing if her party gets bogged down in an internal power struggle. «