Euan McColm: Scottish Labour in a mess over Aberdeen Tory coalition

Kezia Dugdales promise not to do deals with the Tories has further eroded Labours influence on Scottish politics. Picture: John Devlin

Kezia Dugdales promise not to do deals with the Tories has further eroded Labours influence on Scottish politics. Picture: John Devlin

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It was – on the face of things, at least – an example of the sort of strong leadership we demand from senior politicians.

As news filtered out from Aberdeen that newly elected Labour councillors were preparing to form a coalition with the Tories to run the city council, their boss stepped in to lay down the law. Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale would not countenance such a grubby deal and suspended nine local members.

A statement was hastily released: voters could now rest assured that there were no representatives of the Labour Party sitting on Aberdeen City Council.

But if Dugdale thought her rather excessive intervention would put an end to difficult questions about Labour’s part in the political play, she was mistaken. Party members – including some senior figures – were shocked by the leader’s actions. Opponents, on the other hand, were delighted.

One of the key lines of attack in the SNP’s successful supplanting of Scottish Labour over recent years has been the accusation that the party of Blair, Brown and Corbyn is nothing more than a rabble of dishonourable “red Tories”.

During the 2014 independence referendum campaign, the Scottish nationalists’ charge that Labour was standing “shoulder to shoulder” with the Conservative Party succeeded in prising away a number of voters. Labour, having succeeded in toxifying the Tory brand, paid a heavy price for working with their political enemies as part of the Better Together campaign.

But surely all the damage that charge is going to do has already been done? Scotland is now a nation divided along constitutional lines and we can reasonably assume that anyone who has stuck with Labour this far is unlikely to be in favour of Scottish independence.

This being so, it seems utterly perverse that the party’s leader should have acted as she did.

Labour’s explanation for the suspension of these councillors is that they had broken a party pledge that no elected member would enter into a coalition deal with any party committed to a programme of “austerity”.

Having made this foolish promise, the Labour Party had little option but to act when those councillors agreed terms with the Tories.

It was a promise that Labour should never have made. The party has few enough options, these days, without going out of its way to further limit its prospects of playing a meaningful role at any level of government.

The council elections are run on a single transferable vote system, which – you will recall, having played your joyous part in the democratic process a couple of weeks ago – means that voters can lend support to more than one party. Among those voters who helped Labour take nine seats in Aberdeen will be those who also supported the Tory Party.

Tory supporters who voted tactically for Labour – perhaps offering the party a second preference – to try to keep the number of SNP councillors to a minimum in Aberdeen will wonder what the bloody point of that was.

In suspending its councillors in Aberdeen, Labour has done something advantageous to the Tory Party at the behest of the SNP. What a pitiful position for a party that once dominated Scottish politics to find itself in.

Some Labour activists are concerned that the suspensions in Aberdeen will have repercussions in next month’s general election. Labour’s last surviving Scottish MP in the 2015 SNP landslide was the member for Edinburgh South, Ian Murray. Even he would concede that among those who returned him to Westminster two years ago were a number of those who might traditionally have voted Tory. Will those same voters feel so happy supporting a Labour candidate now they know that party views them with such contempt?

Naturally, SNP strategists are tickled by this unexpected Labour meltdown. But there are concerns among senior nationalist ranks about how the general election might impact on plans for a second independence referendum.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon says she wants to hold indyref2 either late next year or early in 2019. Prime Minister Theresa May’s position is that now – with Brexit negotiations ahead – is not the right time to discuss the matter. If the Conservatives can live up to the most optimistic polling predictions and return as many as 12 of Scotland’s 59 MPs, the next UK government would feel confident in simply blocking another referendum.

I’m inclined to agree with the view of one veteran SNP strategist that Sturgeon is not the sort to reply to such an outcome with an unofficial vote. Her predecessor, Alex Salmond, might have enjoyed the sport of such a wheeze, but Sturgeon has a calmer head.

If the First Minister is denied her second referendum by the next UK government, she will have little choice but to return her focus to the domestic agenda. Perhaps we might see some evidence that the reform of education is the priority Sturgeon says it is.

A block on indyref2 would put huge pressure on the SNP’s impressive discipline. The party’s left wing would favour radical action – mass protests, an illegal referendum. When the leader failed to deliver these things and whatever else they had demanded, fractures in the party would be inevitable.

The SNP will, without even a whisper of doubt, win by far the majority of Scotland’s seats in June. But the leadership is braced for some losses. Nobody in SNP HQ expects a rerun of the 2015 result, when the nationalists took 56 out of 59, but few expect losses to run into double figures.

The nationalists expect to lose seats only to Tories. If this is so, it’s hard to see how Labour gets back in the game.

The Scottish Tories will do better than last time in the general election because leader Ruth Davidson has established herself as the ultimate defender of the Union. There is nothing subtle about Davidson’s message which is why it has cut through to so many voters.

In stark contrast, Labour’s decision to suspend its Aberdeen councillors for preparing to work with fellow unionists makes it look pitifully weak on the constitution.

Is it any wonder Scottish Labour’s on its knees?

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