Corbyn frenzy reduces Scottish leadership to a tartan sideshow

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Derek Bateman
Derek Bateman

As Scottish Labour prepares to announce its new leader and deputy this weekend, Derek Bateman assesses the state of play for the party in Scotland as its UK leadership battle becomes increasingly bitter

As if the Scottish leadership of Labour didn’t look irrelevant already – now it is eclipsed by the UK uproar surrounding the contest to run Head Office.

Jeremy Corbyn is the story of Labour and encapsulates the party’s dilemma far more sharply than Ken or Kezia. The differences between them are cosmetic in comparison to the Corbyn offer and how it contrasts with the establishment trio.

Corbyn points to an entirely new direction from post-Thatcher consensus and chimes with much of the SNP agenda of slowing anti-austerity hysteria in order to invest, opposing nuclear arms and putting people at the forefront of policy-making.

Interesting how quickly he slewed the agenda so that even Burnham began talking about nationalising rail – the kind of stuff that terrifies the lackeys in the British media forgetting that it was once Blair policy.

His unexpected trajectory has changed the mood here too with both Scottish contenders now airily announcing that – of course – they would work with Jeremy. All that other uncomplimentary stuff about him was just banter uttered before it looked like he’d win, for God’s sake.

Labour leadership contender Jeremy Corbyn MP
Labour leadership contender Jeremy Corbyn MP

Yet a Corbyn victory will make immediate demands of whoever comes first in Scotland because in any likely scenario decisions will be required. If he is successful and sets about implementing a left-leaning programme, Ken/Kez will have to decide whether to follow. Neither of them seem to have the instincts of the traditional Left and as centrists, may want to demur and hesitate. On the other hand, isn’t a more oppositionist, left-of-centre line of fire exactly what most in Scotland would favour?

The job brings with it the chance to truly break with London-led decision-making but is it really feasible for a Scottish party to remain for example pro-Trident while Corbynistas signal its demise?

You can imagine the pressures building quickly and relentlessly, not least from the post of deputy if it goes to the old Labourite Alex Rowley.

Before any of that, there must be a serious chance of schism if Corbyn makes it. The incredulity of the out-of-touch technocrats of modern Labour and the vigour of their attacks points to defection, perhaps to tread the weed-strewn route of the SDP. This would be a shame as Corbyn is no fool. He must know that a bagful of his own policy preferences would end up on the shadow cabinet floor or stacked in the pending tray as his colleagues gravely shake their heads at each one.

He would need to be shown enough headroom for his progressive instincts to emerge – there are vast acres of space for a harder line against benefit cuts alone – while curtailing the wilder dreams that worry the old guard. (He could fashion a position that allows him personally to oppose nuclear weapons while his government considers its collective stance. How that plays out for his leadership when the green light has to be given remains a critical question).

Ken McIntosh, speaking to Newsnet during his campaign last month
Ken McIntosh, speaking to Newsnet during his campaign last month

If there is a split, in which direction does Ken/Kez lead – in or out? Could the creation of a stand-alone Labour in Scotland be ducked any longer?

These dilemmas sit in front of the real problem – a shattered party machine, a missing morale, a mindset of failure and a policy vacuum. Shaping an effective and coherent anti SNP narrative just to win back the ear of the people is paramount if Labour isn’t to follow the Lib Dems down the plughole.

Who is best suited to ponder, if not actually match up to these challenges…almost certainly McIntosh is better equipped with experience, insight and managerial nous. He emits no egotistical ambition to be sole frontman. His commendably modest demeanour allows others the space in which to grow. In contrast to Mr Angry Iain Gray or the frowning Ms Lamont, he has a lightness of touch belying a doggedly determined approach. He is hard to dislike and sounds sensible in stopping the juvenile opposition for its own sake mentality that makes Labour seem so out of step on key issues. Strategic opposition backed by research on the effects of SNP policy and with worked-through alternatives – something we haven’t had for years – can lever former Labour voters away from the Nationalists. An honest and calm acceptance of what independence might mean rather than Armageddon, would help.

Yet the signs are that the tyro Kezia will triumph largely on a wave of approval for youth and gender, commendable qualities that will not be enough. She is more likely to emphasise the theatrical aspects of opposition championed by Jackie Baillie rather than the slow business of building credibility and creating the perception of a government-in-waiting.

She has at least relative youth on her side. For Labour’s revival to take hold, she’ll need all the time she can get.