A pact with the SNP will be irresistible to a Labour leader with little regard for Scotland, says Paris Gourtsoyannis
When Johann Lamont let the door of John Smith House slam behind her with the claim that Scottish Labour was treated like a “branch office” of the UK party, a more devastating commentary on the relationship between London and Edinburgh within the “party of devolution” scarcely seemed possible.
Over the course of the Labour Party conference in Liverpool this weekend, however, Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t just treated Scottish Labour like a branch office. He’s tried to turn out the lights and bring down the shutters, too.
Labour in Scotland is still haunted by the charge that it doesn’t put Scottish interests above its own, and while there are a number of reasons why it came third in this year’s Holyrood elections, the fact that it isn’t trusted by the voters to stick up for Scotland remains its biggest problem.
So for the UK party leader to put the best effort at fixing that problem in jeopardy by allowing his union allies to vote against critical reforms to the Labour constitution looks like a remarkable and self-defeating breach of faith with party members in Scotland.
Not once, but at least half a dozen times in Liverpool, Mr Corbyn and his supporters attempted to block the package of reforms seen as crucial to reviving Labour’s fortunes in Scotland. When it came to Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale, Mr Corbyn’s appeal for unity following his landslide re-election lasted a matter of hours. By Saturday night the pair were in heated exchanges over a deal they had struck only a week before.
If measures giving Scottish Labour the kind of autonomy it has craved and feared for at least five years are passed this morning on the floor of the Liverpool conference, it will actually be a thumping win for Ms Dugdale. Something that a handful of Scottish Labour leaders, starting with Iain Gray, never managed to get consensus on will finally be agreed in the face of determined opposition.
Life hasn’t been easy for Ms Dugdale recently, between buttons not being pressed and difficult interviews over her strong support for Owen Smith in the abortive rebellion against Mr Corbyn’s leadership. Against the backdrop of that coup attempt being crushed, she has taken a strong stand and refused to back down on Scottish Labour autonomy.
When Jeremy Corbyn made his seismic, unheralded breakthrough to win the Labour leadership last year, there were those who said it was the ideal result for a Scottish Labour party that had been outflanked on the left by the SNP. If there was anyone who could bring the kind of left-wingers who made up the 45 per cent, it was Mr Corbyn, the thinking went.
The party gathering in Liverpool has dispelled what was left of that myth. Mr Smith’s apparent victory in Scotland, while helping to bolster Ms Dugdale’s position, underlines the difficulty of her task. The traditional left voters who would have picked Mr Corbyn as leader aren’t in Labour anymore. Many are in the SNP – how many may well be revealed by the result of the nationalists’ deputy leadership race in a few weeks – but they’ve fled in all directions. Labour canvassing results in Easterhouse have apparently shown that some of the party’s supporters are switching to the Tories.
Corbyn generals have let it be known that Scotland’s usefulness to Labour under his leadership is therefore diminished, as John McDonnell alluded to at the weekend. The fact that Neil Findlay MSP, one of Mr Corbyn’s chief supporters, was among Scottish figures who felt the need to warn against a pact with the SNP shows just how seductive the idea already is in this transformed Labour Party.
The problem will only get worse for Scottish Labour in the run up to the next election, whether it comes next year, as many observers have predicted, or in 2020, as Theresa May has pledged. Labour grandees have lined up to warn that the party under Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t been so far from power for a generation, but that isn’t a rhetorical flourish.
Recent analysis by the Fabian Society shows how Labour under Jeremy Corbyn is dwarfed by the task ahead of it. To win a majority of one, the party has to win 97 seats across England and Wales - because the assumption, which at the moment seems a fairly safe one, is that in Scotland the SNP are an immovable object.
To have even a sniff of being in government, a Corbyn Labour Party has to overturn Conservative majorities of up to 10,000 in wealthy suburbs and leafy commuter towns where their leader is a scare story.
Even if Mr Corbyn leads a Labour renaissance, in places like those there are simply not enough progressive voters to elect a Labour MP with a pitch to the left. Labour has to take votes off the Tories, and the party has just cemented the leader least likely to do that in his place, most likely until the next election. At the moment, it seems optimistic to even imagine a scenario where Labour holds on to the seats it currently has. Winning even 40 or 50 would be a triumph.
As Labour arrived in Liverpool, its leaders were being asked whether they could work with each other. The electoral maths means that as they pack up to leave, the questions should be about who outside the party they would be willing to work with.
A progressive alliance was in vogue at the Momentum conference taking place a mile up the road from the Liverpool conference centre where Labour have gathered. As an election approaches, the idea of a pact with the SNP as part of that alliance will become harder and harder to resist, even though it would be the final nail in Scottish Labour’s coffin.
During the leadership election, Mr Corbyn was willing to give a commitment not to seek a pact with the nationalists ahead of the election. But what about after it? This week, Mr Corbyn’s allies were willing to trash Scottish Labour to preserve his hold on power within his party. If he’s asked to choose between Scotland and Number 10, how do you think he will answer?