Tom Peterkin: Labour's challenges are not all about Corbyn

Kezia Dugdale has much to offer but she has some tricky hurdles to overcome as she heads to conference, says Tom Peterkin

Protecting leader Kezia Dugdale may be a sensible idea for Scottish Labour, but whether continuity at the top will be enough to make a difference at the ballot box is another matter.

Close examination of recent footage of Jeremy Corbyn would suggest that his fingernails are not yet chewed down to the bone.

However, that may change over the next few hours as the votes are counted in two by-elections which may determine his future.

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The UK Labour leader should be advised against nail-biting as a means of relieving his nerves as he will need his fingernails to cling on to his job if the results go the wrong way for him.

Members of the Labour Party at large could be forgiven for indulging in some ferocious nail-biting of their own as votes are cast today in the Stoke-on-Trent and Copeland by-elections.

For the Corbynistas who rallied to their leader’s left-wing standard, the tension arises from whether Labour can perform well enough to keep Mr Corbyn’s coat hanging on its extremely shoogly peg. For the Labour moderates – a group that includes most parliamentarians – the jangling nerves are more about the future of the party and how much longer it has to put up with a leader whose poll ratings suggest he has no chance of mounting a serious general election challenge to Prime Minister Theresa May.

In Scotland, the constant speculation about Mr Corbyn’s leadership is unhelpful. No matter how hard Scottish Labour works to present itself as a separate entity from the rest of the UK party, it remains an uncomfortable truism for Kezia Dugdale that her party’s fortunes are inextricably linked to the credibility of its UK head.

With Scottish Labour heading to Perth tomorrow for its spring party conference, Ms Dugdale will battle on gamely as she rallies the troops ahead of what will be extremely challenging local elections in May. Her task is not exactly helped by the fact that Scottish Labour is just as divided over Mr Corbyn as it is south of the Border.

The majority of elected Scottish Labour politicians, including Ms Dugdale, can hardly be described as fans of the MP for Islington North.

There is, however, a strong Corbyn faction in the Scottish party structure – last month, five of the eight seats on the constituency section of the Scottish Executive Committee were won by candidates backed by the Campaign for Socialism. The election of Stephen Low (an organiser for Mr Corbyn’s successful leadership bid), Cara Hilton, Lesley Brennan, Ann Henderson and Lesley Brennan was seen as a blow to Ms Dugdale.

Their presence on Scottish Labour’s ruling body is also a threat to Ms Dugdale and they could make life difficult for her if, as expected, the party crashes and burns in May.

Given this dynamic, there is the potential of yet more internecine warfare to come. The substantial scrapheap of once-promising politicians who can now describe themselves as former leaders of the Scottish Labour Party is testament to its ability to cast people aside.

Regardless of what happens to Mr Corbyn, one suspects that the Scottish party has to stick with Ms Dugdale. Able and energetic, she has so far shown resilience in what must be one of the most challenging jobs in politics.

In addition to her personal qualities, the progressive tax-raising agenda she is following should be attractive to those on the left, while the loyalty she inspires from those of a more moderate persuasion in her parliamentary party means she has as good a chance of papering over the divisions as anybody.

Therefore her beefed-up communiciations team will be determined to ensure that she survives the fall-out of local election meltdown.

Protecting Ms Dugdale may be a sensible priority and Labour’s best chance, but the long-term outlook remains difficult.

Whether providing continuity at the top will be enough to make an impact at the next Scottish election is another question entirely.

The constitutional fault line that runs through the Scottish electorate does not sit easily with Labour. The dominant argument in Scottish ­politics is no longer about left ­versus right; the polarising question of where individuals stand on ­Scottish independence overshadows all else.

Hence Ms Dugdale’s efforts to underline her opposition to a second independence referendum when the party gathers in Perth.

Even though the constitutional clamour is drowning out the left/right dividing line, Ms Dugdale’s strategy also relies on the hope that voters are still listening to politics of a more traditional nature.

Her high-tax agenda should not be characterised as merely an attempt to keep the Corbynistas on board, it is an effort to outflank the SNP on the left. Despite First Minister Nicola Sturgeon spending much of her career proclaiming her socialist credentials, Labour believes that the SNP’s move to the centre ground has left a gap that can be exploited.

The gap has opened up through the SNP’s pursuit of policies such as cutting Air Passenger Duty and its reluctance to increase the tax rate to 50p for those earning more than £150,000.

Senior figures have said that this is a strategy for the long term and acknowledge it will take time for it to have an appreciable effect.

But history tells us that the most successful parties at the ballot box are those which harvest the plentiful votes in the centre ground.

There is a form of logic in a strategy that tries to outmanoeuvre the SNP on the left, but the cold political reality suggests Labour supporters will be biting their nails for some time to come.