Leaders: Autonomy dangerous ground for Labour

Agreement with Jeremy Corbyn could see Scottish and UK parties mired in conflict and confusion
Jeremy Corbyn on a visit to Scotland with Kezia Dugdale earlier this month. Picture: Lisa FergusonJeremy Corbyn on a visit to Scotland with Kezia Dugdale earlier this month. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Jeremy Corbyn on a visit to Scotland with Kezia Dugdale earlier this month. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

In the torrent of criticism directed at Scottish Labour since the independence referendum, the accusation by its former leader that it was suffocated by the party’s Westminster powerbrokers was arguably the most damaging.

Johann Lamont’s candid interview last October saw her accuse her colleagues of trying to run Scotland “like a branch office of London”. It was a damning internal assessment of the party’s inability to comprehend the Scottish political scene and one with which many in Scottish Labour reluctantly agreed.

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A year on, as she prepares to contest her first election campaign as leader of the party, Kezia Dugdale has made her most significant move yet towards remoulding the internal structures of her party so that is deemed fit for purpose by its members and the electorate.

Her decision to sign up to an agreement with her UK counterpart, Jeremy Corbyn, will ensure the party is autonomous north of the Border. Under her plans, Scottish Labour will have responsibility over policymaking, party membership and the management of local constituency parties across Scotland, while co-operation will take place with the UK party on matters such as staffing and finance.

After a tumultuous few months for the Labour movement throughout Britain, the agreement represents yet another seismic shift. Come the next general election in 2020, the Scottish and UK parties could well find themselves advocating separate – and indeed, conflicting – policies.

Few would have argued against the need for change given the near electoral meltdown which saw the party lose 40 of its 41 Westminster seats in Scotland, but as things stand, it is hard to see how Ms Dugdale will make this work.

It is understandable why she has opted for autonomy instead of full independence, but if the upshot of this new relationship is divergence on significant policy areas such as defence, will the distinction be clear in the mind of voters?

It is no secret Ms Dugdale and Mr Corbyn have differing views across a range of issues. Were the opposite true, the concept of autonomy would make more sense. But the latter’s surprise win to replace Ed Miliband has further complicated matters and leaves Labour vulnerable to attack from those who will point to a lack of coherence.

Conflicting policies could well make a rod for the party’s own back and already many English MPs are furious at the move amid fears it will lead to a chaotic message. As the former home secretary David Blunkett warned, there is a danger of fragmenting the values and identity that make up a common Labour Party.

Ms Dugdale has said that Scottish Labour will adopt a “federal solution” and these latest plans could well see the party take a major step in that direction. Could the new set-up actually increase the likelihood of there being two different parties north and south of the Border rather than keeping such a prospect a bay? Quite possibly.

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It is all very well saying that Scottish and UK Labour would always come together for general elections, but as we are seeing on Trident, unity can be hard to achieve in practice, especially in politics. Ms Dugdale is adamant about the need for radical change, but she finds herself in dangerous territory.