Euan McColm: Why Jeremy Corbyn’s stooge picked the wrong side

Neither Richard Leonard nor Jeremy Corbyn want to stand in the way of Brexit. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty
Neither Richard Leonard nor Jeremy Corbyn want to stand in the way of Brexit. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty
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Scottish Labour has earned its ‘branch office’ credentials by sitting on the fence over the People’s Vote, writes Euan McColm

Scottish Labour’s epic quest to become truly irrelevant continues apace. Rather than seeing the loss of swathes of supporters during the 2014 independence referendum campaign as evidence it had to do more to connect with voters, the party that once dominated our national politics seemed to take that humiliation as a challenge. Think we can turn off punters, do you? You ain’t seen nothing yet. Last week members of the Scottish Parliament were invited to participate in a vote on support for a second EU referendum, a so-called “People’s Vote”, on the terms of whatever Brexit deal the prime minister is able to negotiate. A majority were in favour. This was unsurprising enough. After all, most MSPs – in line with the majority of Scots – supported the Remain campaign in the 2016 referendum.

Dugdale’s decision to vote in support of another referendum shows how different things might have been

By 65 to 30, MSPs asserted their support for giving the voters the right to accept or reject Brexit in whatever shape it ultimately takes.

Keen-eyed followers of the machinations of the Scottish Parliament will have noticed that more than a quarter of Holyrood’s politicians decided not to take a position on this, the dominant political issue of our times. Take a bow, Scottish Labour which – having been asked to take a stand – decided to abstain.

With the honourable exceptions of former leader Kezia Dugdale and Edinburgh Southern MSP Daniel Johnson, who both supported a Liberal Democrat call for a People’s Vote, the Labour group at the Scottish Parliament took the weasels’ way out and refused to commit to either position.

While Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard struck another blow in favour of political irrelevance, members of the SNP, Greens and Lib Dems united against the Tories to win the day.

The Holyrood vote was, we should remember, symbolic; the Scottish Parliament has no authority to call a People’s Vote. But symbolism matters in politics. In the aftermath of the 2014 independence referendum, Scottish Labour struggled to make sense of the political environment in which it found itself. Yes, it had been on the winning side of that particular constitutional argument, but victory came at a cost: many one-time Labour supporters who had voted Yes decided that the SNP better represented them.

Labour’s uncertainty – its position on a potential second independence referendum seemed to be fluid, shifting from downright hostility to equivocal support and back – benefited only the SNP and the Conservatives, whose leader, Ruth Davidson, swiftly established herself as the champion of those Scots (the majority, remember) who supported the maintenance of the United Kingdom.

The temptation is to say that Scottish Labour has learned no lessons from that experience, that it should have swiftly positioned itself with the majority of Scots who voted Remain. But while the party should, indeed, have stood with the 62 per cent who saw through the Leave campaign’s case, its failure to so do is not a sign of political naivety but of its new priorities.

Under UK leader Jeremy Corbyn – a career-long Eurosceptic who insists he voted Remain – Labour is determined not to stand in the way of Brexit.

The more gullible among Corbyn’s supporters may delude themselves that he offers the best chance of preventing, or at least ameliorating, the worst effects of departure from the European Union, but those people simply aren’t paying close enough attention to their leader’s action. Time and again he has refused to challenge Prime Minister Theresa May on her Brexit plans, instead maintaining the pathetically weak line that it’s time for another general election. Corbyn placed the ball in May’s court, knowing that she would stick a knife in it. Of course she’s not going to call an election, is she?

So, there it is. What passes for Labour policy on the single biggest issue facing the UK is an impotent demand for the prime minister to commit an act of political self-immolation. This is not the position of a party that takes at all seriously warnings that Brexit will harm the economy, costing jobs in areas which might never fully recover from the impact.

On Friday, Tory transport minister Jo Johnson – younger brother of Boris – resigned from May’s government and announced his support for a People’s Vote. Johnson, a Remain voter in 2016, issued a statement in which he said the Brexit deal currently being negotiated with the European Union would be “a terrible mistake”. Johnson argued that Britain was on the brink of its greatest crisis since the Second World War and pointed out – not unreasonably – that what was now on offer was nothing like what was promised by Brexiteers during the campaign of two years ago.

This is where we are now: the old Etonian brother of Boris Johnson is a more formidable champion than the leader of the Labour Party for those, already struggling, who’ll be hit hardest by Brexit.

Scottish Labour’s Richard Leonard is only the latest in a line of leaders to have faced the accusation from the SNP that his party is little more than a “branch office”, taking orders from the imperial capital.

Often the nationalists’ “London Labour” jibe was rather unfair. Various Scottish Labour leaders established their own agendas, distinctive from the UK party’s.

But in the case of Leonard’s Scottish Labour, the charge sticks.

When Labour MSPs abstained during the vote on whether there should be a second EU referendum, they put loyalty to Corbyn before loyalty to the majority of their voters.

Dugdale’s decision to vote in support of another referendum shows how different things would have been had she not been hounded out of office by Corbynistas. Scottish Labour would have found itself, for the first time in a long time, standing with the majority.

It appears that Leonard’s Scottish Labour exists to assist Jeremy Corbyn in his project to reshape his party rather than to fight on behalf of the weakest in society.

If this is not so, how else might we explain Scottish Labour’s shameful cowardice over Brexit?