Days after it celebrated its 119th anniversary, the Labour party appears to be stumbling towards what could be a historic collapse.
Ahead of the Scottish Labour conference, not one but two serious disputes erupted over issues that have already seen several MPs south of the border leave to form the Independent Group – anti-semitism and Brexit.
Despite ongoing concern about the level of prejudice against Jewish people, party chiefs told delegates that they would not be allowed to debate motions seeking new processes to tackle anti-semitism. Thankfully, constituency members from Paisley and Eastwood appear determined to raise the issue anyway by putting forward emergency resolutions. Ben Procter, chair of the Eastwood constituency, stressed this was not an attack on Richard Leonard but that they wanted the issue to be taken seriously by the party leadership.
The fury of former leader Kezia Dugdale, however, was very much directed at Leonard. She said she was “shocked” to discover a quote from Catherine Stihler in the conference programme had been changed without the former MEP’s consent, removing a section that described Brexit as a “tragedy for our country” and expressed support for a second EU referendum. Dugdale called for “urgent steps” to “rectify what I consider to be a considerable insult” to Stihler and fellow MEP David Martin.
While a Scottish Labour party source insisted there had been a “genuine misunderstanding” and Leonard had written to the MEPs to apologise, suspicions will remain that the Scottish leader was following what appears to be Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit strategy – to allow Brexit to happen, hoping the Conservatives will take the blame. As Labour MP Margaret Hodge’s decision to record a meeting with Jeremy Corbyn without his permission showed, trust between Labour’s various factions is in short supply.
The party has already lost the dominance it once enjoyed in Scotland and its current crises risk a similar slump in fortunes across the UK. If the party is to unite, its leaders need to address the concerns of people like Dugdale, Hodge and Stihler openly and honestly. Attempts to shut down debate will only encourage further defections. Whatever your politics, an effective opposition is crucial to a functioning democracy. MPs must fear the ballot box because, as we all know, power has a corrupting effect.