What to expect from the Scottish Labour Party Conference

Kezia Dugdale tried to defuse the row this morning. Picture: John Devlin
Kezia Dugdale tried to defuse the row this morning. Picture: John Devlin
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Scottish Labour’s Spring Conference before an election should be an energetic affair – the party has two leaders with massive mandates and are gearing up for another national election in just three months.

And after having for years seeming to struggle on whether to embrace a full-throated, Union Jack-waving vision of Unionism as they shed voters by the ton to the pro-independence SNP, the party seems to have coalesced around the notion of a federal Britain.

Corbyn will also speak at the Conference

Corbyn will also speak at the Conference

But observers looking to find joy, excitement, or even much basic positivity about the future at the Perth Concert Hall are likely to find all three in perilously short supply.

A three-day gathering of restless activists with the leader, deputy leader, Scottish leader, and most senior elected politician all slated to speak has the potential to raise as many question as it answers.

Here are just some of the things to look out for over the weekend.

Kezia upstaged?

Maybe it is a way to get a bigger crowd into the large Perth venue, or a way to show a united front, but the Scottish Labour conference does boast a number of big names.

Jeremy Corbyn is due to take to the stage after Kezia Dugdale, with a keynote speech to close the conference on the Sunday.

In other parties, the SNP for example, the leader’s speech at conference tended to close the conference with a flourish.

Sadiq Khan, the most powerful Labour politician in Britain, will speak immediately before Kezia Dugdale on Saturday.

This is clearly designed for some of Khan’s stardust to rub off on Dugdale – while the latter was leading Labour to an unprecedented third place finish in last year’s Holyrood election, the former was winning the London Mayoral election from the Tories.

But all eyes could be on some of the bigger UK names following the national political climate which will mean a greater appetite for stories about Brexit and the Labour leadership, rather than an early-stage plan for a federal Britain.

Tom Watson, the popular deputy leader, will also speak ahead of Dugdale on Saturday, fresh from his ‘dabbing’ exploits in the House of Commons.

While there is no doubt that Kezia Dugdale, as Scottish leader, is the main event, it’s entirely plausible that she is upstaged but one of her support acts.

Corbyn in Crisis?

Last night’s by-election double-header was a potential banana skin for the Labour leader – and it’s not one that he completely managed to side step.

The party did well to hold on in former stronghold of Stoke-on-Trent Central, avoiding a defeat to UKIP many saw as inevitable.

But Labour were massively helped by the candidacy of UKIP leader Paul Nuttall, whose laid-back approach to the truth made him a much easier opponent.

Claims by Nuttall or on his behalf ranged from the absurd (that he had a PHD and was a former pro footballer) to the despicable (that he had lost ‘close friends’ in the Hillsborough disaster).

The Copeland result was another issue altogether – the Cumbria seat went to the Tories in a reversal of the usual rules of Governing Parties in by-elections.

The seat with a significant population working in the nuclear industry was seen as a test for Corbyn on this issue – and it is one he has failed spectacular.

Whether the relatively safe surroundings of a party conference will allow Corbyn to recharge and regroup without hostility remains to be seen.

He is still backed, at least in public, by Khan, Dugdale, and Watson. The speeches of those three will be pored over for their reference, complimentary or otherwise, to the under-fire Corbyn.

It will be interesting to gauge the views of councillors and MSPs on this issue. While dissent isn’t stifled, expect the anti-Corbyn factions of the party to keep their counsel at conference.

For now.

The mood from the floor

If no elected representatives are going to come out against either of the leaders speaking at the conference, the ordinary rank-and-file could still kick up a fuss.

Today’s Q and A proved that members are on the side of their Scottish leadership, but that doesn’t extend to their UK leader.

One CLP member asked Kezia Dugdale this afternoon what she could do to alleviate the gloom that seems to be surrounding the party at a UK level, bemoaning the aforementioned loss of Copeland.

Once again, with Indyref2 looming, the party footsoldiers seem fired up for yet another fight with the nationalists.

But there doesn’t seem to be much enthusiasm, much less belief, about the party’s future chances in a general election with the other enemy, the Tories.

If that spills over to some disquiet, or even heckling, as Corbyn, or any other senior figure, gives their speech, that could be a sign that we could be heading for more changes of leadership soon.