Ian Murray has acknowledged his party is in a difficult place as other senior Labour figures stepped up their calls for Corbyn to quit.
With Labour’s UK leader facing one of the most challenging weeks of his tumultuous spell in charge of the party, Scottish Labour is struggling to prevent its conference agenda from being overshadowed by another Corbyn leadership crisis.
Murray, the Edinburgh South MP and a key member of Scottish leader Kezia Dugdale’s front bench, is anxious that this week’s conference should concentrate on Labour’s efforts to fight against a second independence referendum, secure a soft Brexit, protect councils against cuts and find a federal solution to the Scottish constitutional question.
But with Corbyn facing two critical by-elections in England just before he heads north of the border for the Perth conference, it is impossible to escape the growing concern about his leadership.
A recent UK-wide poll put Labour 16 percentage points behind the Tories while another survey suggested Corbyn was less popular than Michael Foot when it came to his performance as leader.
“The polls are the polls. Jeremy’s personal approval ratings he’ll have to reflect on,” said Murray, speaking before a “crucial” conference which he described as a chance for Scottish Labour to show it is best placed to look after the interests of the Scottish people as it goes into the May local elections.
Having suggested Corbyn should take a good look at how his leadership is going down in the country, Murray added: “But he is leader of the Labour Party. He needs to be given the space to get on with it.”
Others asked about the impact Corbyn’s leadership was having on the party in Scotland and its chances across the UK were more blunt than Murray, who quit the Shadow Cabinet and his role as Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland last year, despite being Scotland’s only Labour member in the House of Commons.
“Everyone knows it – not everyone says it – but Corbyn is a loser,” said Tom Harris, the former Labour MP and UK government minister. “There is no prospect of him ever becoming Prime Minister… So you have got a Scottish party saying vote Labour and form a government at Westminster – no, it won’t. Until Labour gets its act together and gets rid of him and replaces him with someone who is remotely credible then that’s not going to change.
“If people don’t believe the Labour Party at a UK level can win a general election, they are not going to support the Scottish Labour Party. That was the view in the 2015 election and it is more true now.”
Other former Scottish Labour MPs told Scotland on Sunday that Corbyn’s position at the top of the party would be irrevocably damaged should Labour fail to defend their seats in Thursday’s by-elections in Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent Central.
“I don’t think there is anybody in the Labour Party who doesn’t think Corbyn is going to go before 2020,” said one Labour figure. “It is now a question of when and in what circumstances. If we wake up on Friday to two defeats in the by-elections then the drumbeat quickens for a Corbyn exit strategy. I think we may win one, but if we have a poor May [in local elections] things will then be dominated by the question of ‘when is he going?’”
With Labour facing a challenge from Ukip leader Paul Nuttall in Stoke-on-Trent and the Conservatives rallying in Copeland, there is a view that Tony Blair’s efforts to persuade people to rise up against Brexit creates big problems for Corbyn.
Ian Davidson, the former Labour MP for Glasgow South West, said: “I am astonished that Blair, who is so experienced, should choose to intervene just a few days before crucial by-elections in a way that was almost deliberately designed to place the Labour Party as pro-EU and to thrust those who voted Leave into the arms of either Ukip or the Tories. I don’t think we have seen such an example of disloyalty from a former leader in my time. It is clearly designed to try and undermine Jeremy Corbyn.”
Concern over Labour’s by-election fate has seen Corbyn’s speech moved from the traditional Friday leader’s slot in Perth to Sunday to prevent his presence and the fallout from Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent drowning out Dugdale’s efforts to revive the Scottish party’s fortunes.
Before Corbyn’s arrival, Friday and Saturday of the conference will be built on a “Together We Are Stronger” theme. Delegates will be asked to pass a motion formalising Dugdale’s People’s Convention to discuss a federal structure which strengthens the UK.
Murray said: “We are trying to get conference’s approval for Kez’s new initiative to find a new constitutional settlement for a new Britain post Brexit. At its core are the two fundamental principles of what the Scottish people have voted for, which is to remain part of the UK and to have close relations and the best possible relationship with the EU. That’s what people voted for and that’s actually in Scotland’s best interests.”
According to Murray, another key message will be to present Labour council candidates as fighters against local government cuts.
“Labour councillors have to make the case between now and May that they are the last defence against a Tory government that wants to slash and burn public services and an SNP Scottish government that wants to be a conveyor belt for Tory austerity by not using its powers to make a difference,” said Murray. “There are these issues around lack of funding for schools, potholes, crisis in health and social care… all of that is as a result of SNP cuts.”
In the meantime, those internal critics intent on seeing the back of Corbyn face a substantial challenge. His overwhelming victories in two leadership contests mean that he has an unassailable mandate within the party.
“He’s going to have to be persuaded to resign, but that’s a big crisis that you put the Labour Party through and you have to be quite sure what the outcome is going to be before you embark on that,” said Harris. “What you want is not just someone who is better than Corbyn, but someone who is miles ahead and someone who is seen as a future Prime Minister.”