The Labour leader will struggle to deliver a convincing message in Scotland, says Paris Gourtsoyannis
This week, the worst job in politics belongs to Jeremy Corbyn’s speechwriter. The Labour leader will stand up in front of the Scottish party conference in Perth this weekend to deliver what in times past would have been a rallying call ahead of local elections in May. But any attempt to imagine what message Corbyn can deliver to his dwindling Scottish troops conjures little more than a blank page.
UK polling shows Labour languishing as much as 18 points behind the Conservatives, even as Theresa May navigates the most contentious issue to face any government since the war, leading a divided country and a tiny Commons majority.
Corbyn’s speech in Perth has already been pushed back from the start of the Scottish Labour conference to its last day to limit the fall-out from by-election results in Copeland and Stoke, where Labour runs the risk of an unprecedented double embarrassment for an opposition.
But there is no rescheduling that can delay the humiliating third act in Labour’s Scottish collapse that will inevitably follow, when it is crushed in council elections in May by both the SNP and the Conservatives. The mood music isn’t good.
Pick any policy issue and the chances are good that Corbyn is not only at odds with many of his own MPs, but with much of the Scottish party and its leader, too. On Brexit that split has been decisive, with the two party chiefs ordering their parliamentarians to vote in opposite ways on legislation to trigger the UK’s exit from the EU. In last summer’s leadership challenge, Scotland was reported to be the only place where Owen Smith came out on top, so Corbyn’s support among the membership isn’t what it is elsewhere, either.
So, what on earth will he say? In a quieter moment, as Corbyn stares at that blank page, perhaps he will wish he could give the speech delivered recently by one of his predecessors.
In a press conference last week Tony Blair did something no Labour politician has managed since the EU referendum – and you could argue that few managed it during the campaign, either. He made a clear, coherent argument for Britain’s place in Europe, and managed to get some TV cameras and microphones pointed at him while he did it.
Brexit is not one tough decision but a series of them, Blair argued. “If we were in a rational world, we would all the time, as we approach those decisions, be asking: why are we doing this and as we know more of the costs, is the pain worth the gain?”
Jeremy Corbyn, one of Blair’s most visceral critics, might ponder that before venturing to Remain-voting Scotland. All Out War, the excellent and definitive account of the EU referendum campaign by journalist Tim Shipman, recounts in depressing detail how the current Labour leader’s disinterest allowed the left-wing case for Europe to wither on the vine. It was less a conspiracy than surly, bureaucratic cowardice: campaign emails went without reply, press events unattended, speeches and statements stripped of a few lines here and there to rob them of any power. Labour’s opposition since the vote has been scarcely more effective.
The reasons why many people, including a good number of Labour supporters, cannot trust or stand Tony Blair need no repetition. Many of those reasons have merit, even if much of the hatred towards him has become performed and instinctive. On Europe, in particular, it is fair to approach with caution Blair’s claim that Brexit will not significantly reduce net migration, given his own government’s record on the issue – although on the facts alone, he is absolutely right.
But if Labour’s fallen idol has stepped back into the firing line, it isn’t because he relishes the abuse from newspapers and the left and right. Nor has he set up a think-tank to combat populism because he has tired of the conveyor belt of money from consulting for dubious regimes and corporations.
It’s because he sees the opening left by Corbyn when the current Labour leader decided to wait and see which way the EU referendum went, and follow its lead rather than leading himself.
The post-Brexit assumption has been that Labour’s pro-EU stance in the referendum, no matter how quietly expressed, had alienated large swathes of its northern, working class supporters, who are now at risk of being picked off by Ukip. Shipman documents how Corbyn’s office believed that by keeping a low profile during the campaign, the Labour leader would be on the side of the country if the result was to Leave.
That logic would have us believe that Labour’s refusal to take a more robust stance on Brexit will help it in places like Copeland, where 62 per cent of voters backed Leave, and Stoke-on-Trent Central, where the Leave vote was even higher at 69 per cent. Indeed, there is a quiet confidence in Labour that it can see off the Ukip threat in Stoke and may even hold on to both constituencies.
If they do, however, to credit Corbyn’s Brexit stance for the victories would be to learn the wrong lesson. While Labour’s support has been split by the EU referendum, it hasn’t been split evenly, as polling guru John Curtice pointed out in a blog post at the weekend.
Analysing figures from the latest British Election Survey, Curtice reminded Labour watchers that a majority of the party’s supporters are believed to have voted Remain last year – including across Leave-voting parts of England. In the north, 57 per cent backed the EU.
Curtice concluded that unless Corbyn works just as hard to keep their support as he does the minority that voted Leave, Labour’s fortunes look bleak. Whether the Labour leader has in fact made altogether the wrong choice in chasing a constituency that has already drifted to Ukip remains to be seen.
In Scotland, according to Curtice’s analysis, two thirds of Labour voters backed Remain last year. Their party now faces a looming battle to convince them that, contrary to Tony Blair’s warning last week, the case for Scottish independence is not “much more credible” in the wake of Brexit. When he stands behind the podium in Perth, Corbyn would do well to recognise that.