Leader: Labour’s branch manager will never have to deliver

It is easy for a politician to make bold promises when he or she is never going to have to deliver on them.

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard delivers his keynote speech. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

An opposition party, languishing in the polls, has nothing to lose by making pledges that don’t stand up to much scrutiny.

Scottish Labour, languishing in third place in the polls behind the SNP and the Scottish Conservatives, is unlikely to return to power at Holyrood any time soon.

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This is worth bearing this in mind when considering the speech made in Dundee by party leader Richard Leonard yesterday. He told delegates that Scottish Labour planned to deliver universal free bus travel for all Scots.

Free passes – currently available to those of pensionable age – would initially be made available to all under-25s before, eventually, being issued to all Scots. And there was rousing stuff about taking on wealthy landowners to deliver “land justice” to Scots.

This is all well and good, but with the SNP government consulting on whether to reduce the availability of free bus passes to pensioners, it is unclear how Labour might fund its proposal. Vague promises about raising funds through taxation don’t do much to convince.

Inevitably, Leonard’s speech was overshadowed by the ongoing crisis of anti-Semitism in party ranks. After first rejecting a motion on the subject, party officials were forced to back down and allow discussion.

As is the norm, the Labour Party postponed the inevitable and, in the meantime, suffered yet more damage. Labour in Scotland might not have seen quite the same level of new memberships as the party south of the border since Jeremy Corbyn became leader, but there are many recent recruits who come from the hard left, where conspiracies using anti-Semitic tropes and the hatred of Israel are commonplace.

Scottish Labour is not immune to anti-Semitism and the party’s uncertain handling of the motion asking that it be debated suggests senior figures are unsure about how to address it.

The fact is that among Labour’s parliamentary ranks and throughout its membership, there are people who believe – as the MP now suspended from the party, Chris Williamson, said – that it has given too much ground on the issue of anti-Semitism.

If Leonard is able to avoid any serious crisis on the anti-Semitism front, he will have to do much more than promise free bus passes to win attention.

On the big subjects of the day – on Brexit, on education, on the NHS – Scottish Labour is vague and unfocused. Leonard frequently gives the impression that he withholds an opinion until Jeremy Corbyn has spoken.

For many years, Scottish Labour leaders angrily rejected the accusation that they were little more than branch managers. Leonard seems perfectly happy to fill that minor role.

He should remain confident that he’ll never have to deliver on a policy promise.