Leader comment: Swimming star has earned great respect

UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn came to speak in Scotland yesterday and to rally his party. But is anyone listening?

Jeremy Corbyn was in Scotland to address the Labour conferenc in Perth

He lambasted the Conservatives, the SNP, the calls for ‘indyref 2’, welfare cuts, Westminster austerity, the Liberal Democrats, poverty, health inequality, multinationals, big business, tax cuts and slow running trains. He urged supporters to unite, stand together, fight for social justice and “get the message across”. But who outside the diehard faithful are paying any attention?

Mr Corbyn is putting on as brave a face he can in the midst of a deepening crisis for Labour. It suffered a humiliating defeat in the Copeland by-election in Cumbria. And while it saw off a UKIP challenge in Stoke, there was still a swing against Labour and precious little sign of any revival here in Scotland. Despite some valid criticism of the performance of the SNP on its stewardship of health, education and social welfare, the party would do well to hold on to shrunken Labour territory in the local elections in May.

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The party is deeply divided. Senior figures are troubled by the party’s prospects, its stance on major issues such as Brexit, the economy, defence and nuclear power is confused where not openly divided. But the most serious issue of all is the leadership. Mr Corbyn has fought and won – resoundingly – two leadership challenges. His base in the party seems secure. He has personal qualities and a disarming style which has won acknowledgement across Westminster. But the incontrovertible truth is that he is not seen as a winning Labour leader, still less a UK prime minister. A dramatic poll at the weekend showed 77 per cent of voters believe Labour has the wrong leader.

Mr Corbyn admitted yesterday the result in Copeland “was deeply disappointing and of course I take my share of responsibility for it”. That one line was far as his personal acknowledgment went. The fall-out might have been cushioned by a more inspiring and enlightened speech yesterday. But it barely rose above repetitive slogans, worn-out rhetoric and tired cliché. “Remain united”; don’t “give up”; “conference, together we are stronger”; “unity is still our strength”.

A speech by Jeremy Corbyn is akin to hearing a cascade of noisy pebbles falling down a well and waiting in vain for any sound of a landing. Not least of his problems – and why people are not listening – is that he has little new to say other than wearisome appeals for energetic revival – this to a body that can barely register a pulse. A fresher approach by his speech-writers might have helped. But even this would struggle to disguise the absence of any positive suggestions as to how a government under his leadership would meet all his implied spending implications.

It is hard to know how Labour might begin the task of pulling out of this epochal decline. But begin it must, because both Holyrood and Westminster need a spirited, positive, creative - and inspiring – opposition. The speech yesterday was less a rallying cry than a death rattle.