Scottish Labour’s deputy leader says their weekend conference has put the party “back into the hands of the membership”. Is Alex Rowley’s claim an idle boast or an accurate summary?
Of course, it’s easy to poke fun at a gathering that only half filled the Perth conference centre at the best of times – even for the keynote address by UK leader Jeremy Corbyn. For all the hacks on this season’s party conference circuit, that contrasted woefully with the massive gathering of SNP delegates in Aberdeen and even the Greens who more than half filled the SECC.
It’s also easy to mock a party whose whiz kids overlooked the misspelling of the word “generation” in a slick video promoting Kezia Dugdale’s views on equality and education. The video was withdrawn hours after release – but since nothing truly disappears from the internet, the two-minute You Tube clip has now been viewed more than 12,000 times.
Obviously though, Scottish Labour’s autumn conference will be remembered rather longer for first choosing to debate and then roundly rejecting the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the renewal of Trident – both significant changes in party policy.
Still, it’s easy to observe that this simply leaves Scottish Labour where the SNP has been for decades on Trident and years on TTIP, puts the Scottish and UK Labour parties at loggerheads over the merits of Britain’s nuclear deterrent and leaves Kezia Dugdale and Jeremy Corbyn at odds with one another and with their own party faithful.
Scottish Labour members voted by a healthy 70-30 margin to oppose the expenditure of £100 billion replacing Trident weapons – but Kezia Dugdale didn’t mention the subject in her keynote speech and has made no secret of her support for renewal. The UK Labour Party’s position is officially the same – but leader Jeremy Corbyn is campaigning to reverse that position, has famously said he won’t push the nuclear button under any circumstances if elected prime minister and welcomed the Scottish vote this weekend.
This is one whopping set of contradictions to present to the Scottish electorate in seven short months. Indeed this weekend, members of the same union couldn’t agree – Unite bosses supported scrapping Trident while Unite shop stewards from Rosyth pleaded for its retention.
But setting that seething mass of internal contradictions aside for a minute, this is evidently a party in the process of change – perhaps even of rebirth. The question isn’t whether that process looks neat or messy but whether the party gets to dry land before the boat keels over. There are promising and not so promising signs.
On the plus side, Scottish Labour actually decided to hold debates that would involve strong and even acrimonious feelings. Well done. Strangely, BBC Scotland failed to live-stream the TTIP and Trident debates on the internet – it seems the Labour party and broadcaster fell into the trap of believing leader’s speeches are all Scottish punters really want to hear. That was wrong at the SNP conference – where the debates on fracking and land reform saw the new post indyref membership flex their collective muscle for the first time – and wrong yesterday when debate was as colourful and pointed as Labour gets.
Stephen Low of Glasgow Southside CLP was cheered as he set out the moral case against Trident, saying it shouldn’t be renewed even if it was free because its primary function is detonating a nuclear bomb over a city. “Fundamentally this is a life or death decision. We can choose to squander our resources, talents and the chance to build a different and better future by choosing an ever-greater capacity to dispense death. Or we can invest in communities, skills and the type of society we want. Let’s choose life, let’s cancel Trident renewal.”
Gary Smith of the GMB Union replied that it was “utterly disingenuous” to suggest the motion took account of job losses at Faslane and beyond. “I would leave with a size ten steel toecap in a certain orifice,” he said if asked to go and speak to workers about scrapping Trident. He concluded that the debate was a “nonsense and an utter indulgence.”
The former Labour MP for West Dunbartonshire, Gemma Doyle, tweeted: “Really unbelievable to see union barons completely abandon their members the way Unite in Scotland have done to the Faslane workforce today.”
Mind you, many onlookers might find it unbelievable that the desire to protect members’ jobs still forms the bulk of the case for retaining weapons of mass destruction. Of course jobs matter – but presumably not at any price. Ironically it’s now apparent that Labour Party members who once lobbed this “lost jobs” taunt at Yes campaigners always knew there was a perfectly reasonable riposte.
Still, the new policy is undoubtedly good news for the majority of British voters in successive opinion polls who’ve opposed spending billions on an American-controlled nuclear weapons system instead of other public spending options. It’s also good for Scottish Labour because it lets them “meet” the SNP’s moral argument against Trident and raise the stakes by attempting to lead a new cross-party campaign.
“Now to build the broadest, cross-party campaign against renewal,” tweeted Neil Findlay who stood against Jim Murphy for the Scottish leadership two years ago.
Can that be done? Deputy leader Alex Rowley said the Trident vote at Perth “allows us to make the argument within the UK. We will make the case [against renewal] right across the UK within the Labour party. Whether you campaigned for no or for yes we [all] campaigned for change in Scotland, and that desire can bring us together again.”
This alone will not bring scunnered Yes voters tumbling back towards Scottish Labour.
Indeed the party’s opposition to Trident casts one constitutional reality into even sharper relief – English politicians still make the decisions on Trident even though the vast majority of Scottish politicians and voters are opposed to nuclear weapons in Scotland’s territorial waters.
But Scottish Labour’s new stance on Trident, TTIP and restoring Tax Credits (even though that may prove practically impossible) bring the party up to date with majority opinion and the new co-operative tone of Scottish Labour leaders suggests they have finally stopped feeling entitled to wielding power. There’s still a mountain to climb. But that’s not bad work for one weekend.