If voting Labour becomes a positive protest vote, Dugdale’s party could benefit, writes Lesley Riddoch
Could there be a Corbyn bounce for Scottish Labour at next year’s Holyrood elections after the veteran left-winger was crowned UK Labour leader this weekend, with a massive mandate to transform the party?
Certainly Jeremy Corbyn’s victory has put the cat among the pigeons, prompting breathless BBC coverage of the “overwhelming and totally unexpected” nature of his landslide victory (despite a consistent poll lead), sneering dismissal by the Murdoch-owned Sunday press and ludicrously hyperbolic warnings of “dangerous intent” by Tory big hitters.
Coming exactly a year after the same “impossible” moment when the Yes vote hit 51 per cent before the indyref, this concerted and hysterical attack will have stirred memories and prompted sympathy among fellow Trident and austerity-opposing Yes voters. Could that sympathy translate into a vote for Scottish Labour next May? It’s very hard to envisage – but not completely impossible.
Already, some things have changed as a result of Corbyn’s election. It wasn’t just Corbynistas who listened with a lump in their throats as the new Labour leader proclaimed in a stirring acceptance speech: “We don’t have to be unequal. It does not have to be unfair. Poverty isn’t inevitable. Things can, and they will change.” “Still Yes” Scots will also have watched with amusement as Corbyn led the press a merry dance in the aftermath of his Blair-trouncing victory, heading into a pub to thank supporters and speaking at a pro-refugee rally the broadcasters had clearly no intention of covering, before heading home. He gave one interview to Radio One’s Newsbeat but turned down Sunday’s Andrew Marr Show, sending instead Tom Watson, even though his newly-elected deputy has very different views on Trident, Nato membership and Europe. Indeed, far from trying to control opposing views like the humourless, “hard left” apparatchik he is meant to be, Corbyn appears more relaxed about dissent than his “centrist” predecessors Messrs Brown and Blair. There’s even doubt he will do battle with David Cameron in Prime Minister’s Questions this week, after suggesting that other Labour MPs should take turns at the despatch box. Is he feart or just instinctively collegiate? I’d opt for the latter explanation. A Fleet Street political editor I spoke to last week was certain Corbyn would win but not sure he’d enjoy it. “Jeremy has been the kind of guy who’ll sit and talk for hours with someone who disagrees with him. He won’t have that luxury as leader.”
Maybe not – but it’s all the more impressive that this beardy, vegetarian, tee-total cyclist is so earnestly and optimistically determined to try.
But of course sympathy for the man doesn’t automatically create new Scottish Labour voters.
There are currently three big problems in the way.
Can Corbyn get elected in England? Will his stance on Scotland change – currently a rather uninformed hostility to more devolution, let alone independence?
And will Scots back his relatively right-wing and lacklustre Scottish Labour colleagues at Holyrood, even if Corbyn surprises everyone, supports Scottish Home Rule and creates a “Rainbow Alliance” opposition front bench including SNP, Green and Plaid Cymru MPs? Not completely unthinkable.
Clearly the new UK Labour leader is faced with a divided party, a hostile establishment, a sceptical English electorate and an organisational mountain to climb. It’s not yet clear if the threat of a Blairite coup has passed. There are suggestions Corbyn will have to toughen up and force reluctant MPs to vote against welfare cuts or lose the party whip. Some even suggest a reverse Clause 4 moment is coming, when the new left-wing party membership demands a change in the party’s constitution which will prompt a purge of Blairites in much the same way the Left were expelled and repelled by policy and rule changes in the 1980s.
Yet such trials and even Corbyn’s apparent un-electability in England might not deter left-leaning, underdog-favouring Scots. After all, many voted SNP in May in full knowledge that the party could not form the next UK Government alone. Besides, Corbyn may not be Labour’s leader in 2020. There’s a rumour he intends to revitalise the party over the next four years before standing down at 70 to make way for a younger leader with less “revolutionary baggage” who can appeal to Middle England. Meantime though, if a vote for Labour starts to resemble a positive, principled protest vote rather than a calculated, least-worst-alternative-to-the-Tories vote, the Scottish party could benefit. As long as it seems to be on the same wavelength.
And there’s the rub.
New Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale has been decidedly lukewarm about a Corbyn-led party, though since that prospect became more likely, she’s sounded more enthusiastic. Whether that seems expedient or convincing is largely up to her.
Interviewed by the BBC in the aftermath of Saturday’s result, the thirty-something sounded strangely tired and wooden, using the weary phraseology and robotic rhetoric of New Labour – a style the straight-talking Corbyn is hopefully about to consign to the history books. Of course a Scottish Labour leader must hold the SNP to account, but can Ms Dugdale appear equally eager to tackle the establishment, break rules and discard old Labour taboos along the way? Her deputy Alex Rowley has helped bridge the impending north-south policy gap by calling for a referendum on the renewal of Trident. He’s also said Labour “needs to become the party of Scottish Home Rule”.
And this, of course, is the 64-thousand-dollar-question. Can they?
Corbyn currently sees no need for further devolution but supports the right to self-determination – so there may be room for manoeuvre. But for most former Labour supporters, independence remains the only option that guarantees Middle England will never again block the political will of Scottish voters. Some might be lured back by a promise of “something close to federalism”. But since that promise was so recently made and broken by senior Labour figures, new promises will be taken with a barrel-load of salt.
It’ll be a long, hard road back to credibility for Scottish Labour – but Jeremy Corbyn’s election is undoubtedly a small, first step.