Scottish party must want to distance itself from the UK leader, but it has its own troubles says Tom Peterkin
At a time when profound political challenges are posed by Brexit, the need for strong and consistent leadership has rarely been more urgent. Few, however, appear capable of rising to the challenge.
Faced with the uncertainties of Brexit, it has become fashionable to chuck charges of poor leadership at a variety of politicians.
Theresa May is accused of lacking direction when it comes to her Brexit plan. Nicola Sturgeon is accused of contributing to the uncertainty by blowing hot and cold on indyref2. Brexiteers like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are condemned for the absence of a coherent plan for withdrawing from the EU. But when it comes to shining examples of shambolic leadership, this week’s performance by Jeremy Corbyn was a bit of a masterclass. Faced with the task of relaunching his leadership by sending out a strong and unambiguous political message, the best the Labour leader could do was perform a baffling series of U-turns.
Amid concern in Labour circles at the growth of the Ukip vote in Labour’s traditional heartlands, Corbyn signalled that his party would oppose uncontrolled migration to the UK.
In order to win back departing Labour voters who are worried about immigration, Corbyn indicated he would announce that his party is not “wedded” to free movement and favoured “reasonably managed migration”.
But when it came to the critical moment during his relaunch speech in Peterborough, Corbyn changed tack.
He altered his speech to say that the party did not “rule out” keeping free movement in exchange for access to the Single Market.
No wonder people were confused. Those hoping that textual analysis of the relevant extract of Corbyn’s speech might clear things up were to be disappointed.
“Labour is not wedded to freedom of movement for EU citizens as a point of principle. But I don’t want that to be misinterpreted, nor do we rule it out,” was what Corbyn said.
Good luck to any voter looking for an unambiguous message in that fog of words.
The confusion over immigration was compounded by the mixed messages coming from Corbyn on the question of fat cat salaries.
Before making his big Peterborough speech, Corbyn began his day using an appearance on the radio to improvise a new policy of imposing a pay cap on higher earners.
It didn’t take long for Labour colleagues and former party advisers to savage the idea.
“Totally unworkable,” was the verdict of Danny Blanchflower, former adviser to the Labour leader and a former member of the Bank of England’s monetary committee. On Twitter, Blanchflower said: “Corbyn max wage idea idiotic. Firms would simply pay workers by giving profit shares. If I was still an adviser I would have told him it’s a totally idiotic idea.”
On a day already muddied by muddle, a spokesman for the Labour leader claimed Corbyn had “misspoke” on the radio while Corbyn himself removed any reference to the idea from his speech.
Later the Labour leader attempted to retrieve the situation by suggesting a better way of limiting mega salaries was to control the pay ratio between the highest and lowest earners in companies. So confusion was piled on confusion on a day that was crying out for clarity.
Just what impact Corbyn’s rudderless approach will have on the Scottish arm of the party remains to be seen, but one can imagine Kezia Dugdale trying to breathe fresh life into her efforts to portray Scottish Labour as an autonomous entity.
As Corbyn was flip-flopping, Dugdale’s party was doing a bit of campaigning of its own, as her deputy Alex Rowley launched its vision for local government ahead of May’s council elections.
Rowley did not indulge in the sort of mixed messaging that characterised Corbyn’s relaunch. In comparison, Rowley’s message was relatively straightforward as he announced a series of tax rises and called for an honest debate on funding local authorities.
The problem for Scottish Labour is that Rowley’s plea to put a penny on income tax, reintroduce the 50p tax rate for the highest earners and give the councils the power to impose land and tourist taxes was not a palatable one for voters.
Regurgitating high-tax policies from a manifesto that led to Labour’s worst ever Scottish election is hardly likely to turn on the electorate. Promoting a tax-raising agenda is always a tough sell and the suspicion is that Scottish Labour will have a rough ride in May.
Surprisingly, Dugdale did not show up to Rowley’s local government event staged in the centre of Edinburgh. Her absence was noted by a combative member of the press corps who asked Rowley to explain why she was missing.
His answer was that he was in charge of Labour’s local government policy and that his press conference clashed with Dugdale’s visit to a school. A quick glance at Dugdale’s Twitter feed suggested that the Scottish Labour leader had been speaking at the new Portobello High School, a worthy visit but perhaps not the most pressing engagement.
“Isn’t it the case that she’s hiding from this election – anticipating that a bad result will put pressure on her to resign as leader?” was the journalist’s retort.
Regardless of whether that was the reason, such was the uninspiring nature of the events on both sides of the Border one almost felt it was difficult to blame her for staying away.