Just when you thought that politics couldn’t get any more exciting, the Labour Party comes along and decides on a course of internal combustion. The fratricide surrounding their leadership election is approaching unbelievable and those of us in the SNP have just been observing events in slack jawed amazement.
The Corbyn phenomenon is almost as dramatic as it was unpredicted. I don’t think anyone expected much from the UK Labour leadership contest, as the usual assorted Blairite centrists started to throw their hats into the ring. But the Labour membership is restless and they do not want ‘business as usual’. Their approach has been in response to the bland Blairite managerialism, mixed up with general anti-establishment politics. It is going to be some ride in the next few months, if as predicted, Jeremy Corbyn triumphs.
The big question is what happens next? What will be the response from the Labour leadership and most importantly what is the UK establishment likely to do?
In the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) there are only about 20 or so MPs who have declared support for Jeremy, with the rest bitterly hostile to his agenda. I don’t think there will be a split or large scale departures. The lesson of that remains forlornly marooned in the diminished ranks of the Liberal Democrats. Labour MPs will not make that mistake again.
More likely, the PLP will indulge in ‘hostile accommodation’ until they can securely dispatch of him at a time of their choosing. There will be a campaign of subtle undermining of his leadership. The PLP will gleefully present any evidence of failure with setbacks brutally exposed to try and convince the wider Labour membership of the dreadful mistake they have made and wait for the clamour to have the Blairite ‘consensus’ reinstalled again. This is a risky strategy as Labour members are just as likely to blame the MPs for any failure, and who knows, some of Jeremy’s approaches just might become popular.
That brings us to the establishment’s response. Thus far, the establishment has been conflicted in its response to the Corbyn phenomena. It has been a bit shocked at its emergence and the potential threat it presents to everything they currently enjoy. On the other hand, it has taken the view that Corbynism could never prevail and has encouraged it, hoping that the current establishment party of choice – the Tories – will become unassailable. In Scotland we got a glimpse of the establishment response when it felt that their vital interests were threatened by Scottish independence. This will be as nothing compared to the fury that will be directed at Jeremy Corbyn if there was a sense he was to prevail.
We in the SNP should carefully negotiate the new environment we will find ourselves in. At the end of the last Parliament we became the de-facto opposition and we should continue to assert ourselves as such. We will work with all who propose a progressive agenda and we will always support the interests of the Scottish people.
Enjoying the Scottish Labour leadership contest? I remember when these things really meant something. This time round it could barely be more irrelevant. There is hardly anyone in Scottish Labour who will tell you that this leadership contest will determine next May’s First Minister of Scotland and even we in the SNP can palpably feel the depression in this once great party. Scottish Labour now languish at 20% in the polls and there is absolutely no sign of their diminished status being improved. They have never been further behind the SNP and the only thing that Scottish Labour have got right recently is the prediction that they haven’t reached rock bottom yet.
The thing is it doesn’t have to be so bad for Scottish Labour and a remedy to their current position is just so obvious that even I am exasperated that there is no constituency within Scottish Labour that can’t see it for themselves. Hello! It’s the constitution, comrade! How can no-one at the highest level of Scottish Labour see that the constitution remains the defining political fault line in Scottish politics and Scottish Labour are on the wrong side of it?
Scottish Labour remain defiantly opposed to meaningful constitutional change and it is simply killing them. They endearingly indulge in the forlorn hope that the constitutional debate will somehow go away and there will be a return to a pre referendum ‘normality’. And it just ain’t going to happen. There are huge unresolved issues kicking around following the referendum and Scotland is not going to get off this groove until they are satisfactorily resolved. Almost unbelievably Scottish Labour are also having a leadership contest in perhaps the most passionate anti-austerity part of the UK but have failed to tap into this groundswell precisely at the same time as the rest of the UK party have found their anti austerity voice in the campaign to elect Jeremy Corbyn. It’s as if they have conspired to find a new and unique way to increase their pointlessness.
Now I’m not saying that Scottish Labour need to adopt a position supporting independence (though that would probably provide the quickest way to its salvation) they just have to say that they are open to the idea. Even arguing for full fiscal autonomy could start to address their myriad of problems. Never before has such a disconnect existed between a political party in Scotland and the voters they need to recruit to start winning elections. Former Labour voters are several steps ahead of Scottish Labour in their ambitions and they have identified a way forward through significant constitutional change. Why do Labour think they did so badly in their former ‘Yes” heartlands? Do they really believe that a position of ‘no change’ on the constitution will somehow eventually bring these voters back? Every time a Labour leadership candidate says that this is the limit to Scotland’s constitutional ambitions they further compound this profound disconnect between their party and their former voters. Meanwhile their leadership candidates go through their almost irrelevant motions whilst no-one is listening.
Why should we in the SNP care about what happens in Scottish Labour? Well yes, we need a strong opposition to hold our government to account. But there is much more to it than that. If Labour adopted a pro-independence stance we would win the next referendum. Even if Labour adopted an agnostic position we would win. Having all the other main Scottish parties against us last time probably more than anything deprived us of a victory as we had to fight to win them over. Where Better Together was disastrous for Labour it was what was absolutely required for the No case. There could not be another Better Together if Labour were out of the equation.
And if Labour were to step aside or even get on board in the next referendum it would be good for our nation, the cause of independence but most importantly for the Labour Party too. It is just so hard to see a way back for Scottish Labour when they remain so alienated from their former voters and an independent Scotland would allow them to rebuild, reconnect and allow them the opportunity to offer a new type of leadership for a new Scotland.
Will they ever consider such a radical or bold move? Well not yet. Like an unreformed alcoholic they will continue to knock back the stuff that is destroying them before they decide on the abstinence cure. It will probably be next years Scottish election that will offer that cathartic last bottle. We should continue to encourage any voices that emerge beforehand and point out to Scottish Labour there remains a way out of their almost unsustainable doldrums. They will eventually get it and when they do – we all win.