Brian Wilson: What qualities does Scottish Labour’s next leader need?

Jeremy Corbyn with the bust of John Smith at Glasgow University Union
Jeremy Corbyn with the bust of John Smith at Glasgow University Union
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The next Scottish Labour leader should not be suck the party into Holyrood centralism, writes Brian Wilson

There was a nice picture last weekend of Jeremy Corbyn, at Glasgow University Union, alongside a bust of the late John Smith.

A few days later, it occurred to me that the Scottish Labour Party might usefully bear this image in mind over the coming weeks. Corbyn expressed respect for John Smith as “an honest and principled Labour leader who is still very much missed”.

John’s reciprocal view in the 1980s might have been more acerbic but never malicious. Dissent and factionalism have forever been the price to pay for maintaining Labour as a broad, electable political church. I think that is true of all serious parties.

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Throughout Labour’s history, battles were fought and consensus emerged. The objective of most combatants involved ideological emphasis rather than absolutism; the balance within the broad church rather than driving out the unfaithful in search of higher-minded exclusivity. Which is rather a wordy way of describing what that picture encapsulated.

John Smith came from the Right of the party, dating back to the Gaitskellite struggles with the Bevanite Left.

But what, ultimately, did that history matter?

By common consent, beyond party lines, far less factional ones, he would have become a great Labour Prime Minister, fired by a deep sense of social justice, decisive politics and well-honed distrust of courtiers and chameleons.

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In other words, labelling within the Labour Party has always tended to belong more in opposition than government and rhetoric than reality.

Some of the most ideas-free, civil service-dependent ministers I have observed were great tribunes of the Left until they actually had to do something.

The same applied to others who rose on the slates and coat-tails of the Right. Labels became submerged in the requirement to demonstrate competence and make real-world decisions.

There have, of course, been issues of high principle which split Labour governments along Left-Right lines but big exceptions prove the general rule and rarely did dividing lines turn out to be that simplistic. For example “In Place of Strife”, in the Wilson years, was castigated as an intolerable constraint upon trade union freedoms, yet its main promoter was a doyenne of the Left, Barbara Castle.

If the thesis holds good at UK level, it is even truer in Scotland.

There is limited potential within Holyrood’s powers for much ideological sub-division inside the Labour tent.

Far more important than contrived differences is the presence of leadership which is radical, competent and convincing.

These are qualities which not only Scottish Labour, but Holyrood in general, desperately requires.

It is also, surely, what Labour voters and former voters are looking for. When the next Scottish Labour leader stands up to speak, question or be interviewed, he or she should from the first day look and sound like a First Minister in waiting.

In the cruel world of politics, that is much more important than their abstract views on matters they will never be asked to determine.

The first test for potential candidates is to stand in front of a mirror and ask themselves that question.

Am I capable of being radical, competent and convincing? If not, go back to bed, though I should hastily add that names currently mentioned for the role are all capable of passing the test. I think the potential field seems quite impressive, making it all the more sensible to base the outcome on merit alone.

The media are desperate to turn it into a Corbynite v anti-Corbynite conflict but an immediate success would be to avoid that trap. For all the reasons I have alluded to, electing someone because of the label attached to them is plain daft, all the more so in the Scottish context because the responsibilities of the job itself will offer little room for ideological hair-splitting.

In the old days, Brexit might have been a defining issue.

The Labour Left was anti-EU while the Right couldn’t get enough of it.

But that is now wildly anachronistic.

Through Corbyn and Keir Starmer, Labour is edging towards a credible position which respects the referendum result while defending vital UK interests. Whoever leads Scottish Labour must work constructively to complement that approach, in marked contrast to the assumption that “all is woe” and Scotland is, by definition, being done down.

Another criterion I look for in my candidate of choice is a pro-active approach to developing localised policies as well as national ones. To a large extent, Labour lost its way on this, leading to daft decisions like support for a national police force.

Labour should not be sucked into Holyrood centralism but will win friends by remembering that devolution must respect differences within our small country. That’s not a left-right mindset either.

Whoever wins will take over in more propitious circumstances than those which greeted Ms Dugdale.

The 2014 referendum had temporarily changed the fault lines in Scottish politics and the losing minority became dominant thanks to the electoral system.

That has started to correct itself and no party can claim an exclusive right to speak for Scotland, at either Holyrood or Westminster. Just as important, the constitution has been flogged to death and there is an appetite for issues which directly affect people’s lives and aspirations.

The least Kezia Dugdale deserves is for the explanation of her departure to be accepted at face value and respected on that basis.

Two years may not seem like a long time in the job, if you say it quickly, but that is not the relevant statistic. If she had stayed, she would be looking at a further four years before Holyrood elections and then, given a fair wind, five years after that. Anyone is entitled to demur at that prospect, particularly if their personal circumstances and priorities have changed.

Packing it in as leader does not mean that she has no future in politics, unless that is what she chooses.

All parties offer current examples of why that need not be so.

I wish her well.

Her successor has a real chance to do a great job for Scotland and for Labour. The starting point should be to look for a leader of “honesty and principle”, to forget about labels and to enthuse the weary masses.