Leaders: Brand Corbyn is still untested

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn embraces newly-elected MP for Oldham West and Royton, Jim McMahon (left). Picture: AFP/Getty Images
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn embraces newly-elected MP for Oldham West and Royton, Jim McMahon (left). Picture: AFP/Getty Images
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LABOUR’S victory in the Oldham West and Royton by-election proves, according to Jeremy Corbyn, the appeal of his party’s “anti-austerity message”.

The election of Jim McMahon to replace the late Michael Meacher showed Labour was pushing back the Conservative Party.

In fact, Labour’s retention of the seat tells us nothing useful about the party’s prospects under its controversial left-wing leader. The Labour party winning a safe Labour seat under a Tory government is not an especially significant achievement. Predictably, the so-called Corbynistas have hailed McMahon’s election as evidence their man can take them to power. But Labour victory in a constituency like Oldham West and Royton, a stronghold for decades, does not point to the party being able to make inroads into Conservative-dominated “Middle England”.

Corbyn certainly has the vast majority of his party with him. Hundreds of thousands of new members attracted by his more traditional left-wing policies are committed to his shift away from the political centre ground. But the majority of his MPs remain unconvinced.

Corbyn spoke during Wednesday’s Commons debate in opposition to the UK becoming involved in air strikes on Syria, but the Labour politician who had the greatest impact was his shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn.

Benn, who spoke in favour of action, immediately became the focus of speculation about whether he might be a likely successor to Corbyn. It’s clear that a significant number of Labour MPs would like to see this outcome.

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s later remark about Benn’s contribution – that the greatest oratory can often lead to the greatest mistakes – underlined the division in the shadow cabinet and suggested a desire to spike momentum behind Benn. The shadow foreign secretary has said nothing about harbouring leadership ambitions but if there were an election to replace Corbyn tomorrow, he’d be favourite to win the support of the majority of Labour MPs.

The rest of the party, on the other hand, would not entertain the idea. Labour constituency parties have been swamped by new members of a radical left disposition, and the idea that they might elect an MP who supported military action in Syria is unthinkable.

Those Labour MPs now fondly daydreaming of a Benn-led Labour party underestimate the power of the Corbynistas. Members of the Momentum faction, inspired by Corbyn, are already discussing the deselection of members who voted with the government on Wednesday.

Corbyn arrived in Oldham on Friday morning to congratulate his new MP, but behind the televised hug with McMahon lies the truth that Labour is a party more divided than ever before.

Corbyn’s shadow cabinet is an uncomfortable mix of far-left and pragmatic centrist and the result is that the leader does not appear fully in control. This was certainly the case during the Syrian vote when Benn stood in defiance of his leader’s position and won plaudits.

Of course, it is true that a majority of Labour MPs walked with Corbyn through the No lobby on Wednesday but that does not mean that those politicians are suddenly committed to their leader’s brand of left-wing politics.

Labour under Corbyn will not be properly tested until it is asked to win a seat currently held by an opposing party. A Labour by-election victory in the south-east of England might suggest real progress, and might add flesh to the slender notion that the enthusiasm of Corbynistas can be replicated across the country.

Next May, Scottish Labour will fight the Tories for the right to become the official opposition to the SNP in the subsequent parliament. If Labour does badly, then Corbyn may be judged on that. His “new politics” must win back voters from the SNP as well as in England if Labour is to form the next government at Westminster.

Corbyn was perfectly entitled to celebrate by-election victory this week but it remains unclear how he will give his brand of politics the broad appeal required to win over his colleagues and, more importantly, the country.

Time to spread the Edinburgh Festival?

The Edinburgh Festival is celebrated as one of the finest of its kind anywhere in the world. Some of the greatest international talents have made their marks in Edinburgh, either as ambitious newcomers or established stars.

But the Edinburgh Festival doesn’t exist simply as a celebration of the performing arts. It also provides an important source of income to the city – and by extension, to Scotland. The tourism industry receives a massive boost thanks to visitors to the capital during the festival, when hotel rooms become scarce as hen’s teeth and bars and restaurants overflow.

The Edinburgh Festival, then, should be cherished but it might be time for some changes. Perhaps there’s a way for the rest of Scotland to benefit from it more – both as a cultural spectacle and source of tourism revenue.

Paul Bush, head of EventScotland, argues that ays the festival should be extended to include events held across the country. He suggests that a series of events could be staged as far away as Glasgow, Perth and even Inverness to mark the 70th anniversary of the festival in 2017.

Bush asks why the Edinburgh Festival cannot “cascade” into other parts of Scotland. We think this is a very good question. Why shouldn’t the benefits of the festival be shared more widely?

To some, the Edinburgh Festival is emblematic of cultural elitism. This perception would be considerably undermined by a programme of events in parts of the country currently underserved by the arts. There would be a knock-on effect to their local economies if those tourists who come to Edinburgh could be tempted to see shows further afield.

Bush’s idea is worth consideration. Across Scotland, there are under-used venues as well as businesses that could do with the financial boost an extended festival would bring.

Few places in the world are as exciting as Edinburgh during the festival. But why should the capital reap all of the benefits?

The Edinburgh Festival is a wonderful, internationally recognised brand which could benefit towns and cities the length and breadth of Scotland.