Commentary by Hugh Kerr
As I predicted last week, Scottish Labour moved significantly to the left at its conference in Perth this weekend.
I had hoped to be there to cover it for Newsnet Scotland, but sadly Scottish Labour wouldn’t grant me press credentials despite me having covered a number of Labour events recently, including Jim Murphy’s launch ( remember him? apparently he was nowhere to be seen in Perth!) or Jeremy Corbyn’s Edinburgh meeting during his leadership campaign.
My exclusion is probably explained by the fact that soon after I was expelled by Labour as an MEP in 1998 I was chucked out the Scottish Labour Conference. I was reporting on it for the socialist magazine Red Pepper and was sitting on the press bench next to my old friend Murray Ritchie of The Herald during one of Gordon Brown’s self congratulatory speeches.
We on the press bench had the advanced text and there was a purple passage saying “my whole life has been dedicated to fighting unemployment and poverty”. I looked at the front page of The Herald whose headline was “4,500 jobs to go in Scotland due to Gordon Brown’s budget”, and couldn’t resist! I stood up and held up the front page to the then Chancellor and the TV cameras and said: ” Is this what you mean Gordon?”
The Great Clunking Fist was stumped that anyone should dare to interrupt him and spluttered “Hugh Kerr, you can ask me questions in Brussels” and continued with his speech. Dave Hill the UK Labour Press Officer escorted me out of the conference and said: “Right Hugh can we have your credentials.” I replied: “Of course Dave, but you have made tomorrow’s front page”, to which he retorted: “You bastard”.
Later Red Pepper and I received letters banning us from Labour conferences for life. Hilary Wainwright later fought a successful campaign to get Red Pepper reinstated. Of course I was sad at not being able to attend this weekend’s conference, not least because Jeremy Corbyn is an old friend and also a former student at North London Poly where I taught for 25 years.
Corbyn’s speech was one of the highlights in Perth. He seemed perfectly at home among Scottish Labour and made much of the Keir Hardie connection. claiming himself as the rightful inheritor and the only bearded leader since! Someone should tell Jeremy that one of Keir Hardie’s central beliefs was Home Rule for Scotland. Instead he emphasised that Keir Hardie was an MP for English and Welsh constituencies. I will send him a note via one of his key advisers, my old election agent Jon Lansman! I shall also remind the new leader that Keir Hardie’s real name was Kerr and his mother’s name was Mary Kerr just like my mother.
Jeremy emphasised “the sunshine of Socialism” and spoke mainly of the appalling Tory attack on the poor and how Labour would resist them. He didn’t spend much time criticising the SNP – perhaps his Scottish advisors realised that when the SNP is 30 points ahead in the polls it shouldn’t be your central focus. Yes there were minor sideswipes at SNP policy on health and education but the big picture was the “sunshine of socialism” and the rejection of Trident.
This was perhaps the key policy issue over the weekend. As explained in a previous article, a deal was done with the biggest trade union, Unite, to prioritise job replacement for all those workers threatened by the closure of Trident. The GMB which represents most trade unionists at Faslane was never going to support the resolution to reject Trident and they duly opposed it. After a spirited debate delegates voted 70/30 in favour of abolition, just like they did in 1997 when they were last allowed to debate it. Of course Scottish Labour will be voted down by UK Labour when the SNP debate Trident in the House of Commons on November 24.
No doubt Scotland’s sole Labour MP Ian Murray will vote against Trident, as he is a long time opponent. However it is less clear how the rest of the Labour Shadow Cabinet will vote on the SNP motion. A large majority of them believe in Trident. How will Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell vote? Isn’t there meant to be collective decision-making? How also will Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale feel? After all she has spoken and voted in favour of Trident all her short political life, indeed she never mentioned Trident in her 45-minute speech at Perth.
I welcome Scottish Labour’s vote against Trident, but there is some way to go before a British Labour Party will vote and act against Trident.
This brings us directly to the question of relative autonomy, the rather vague new concept governing the relationship between Scottish Labour and UK Labour. This came out of a famous statement signed by Dugdale and Corbyn on the topic (a form of vow perhaps?). However if you examine the document it is very vague. This is not surprising since Corbyn has to get the necessary changes through a party machine that is pretty hostile to these changes and which provides most of Labour’s funding in Scotland.
However they are both committed to the vague principle of relative autonomy, which should be enough for them to pose as independent at least up to the Scottish Parliament election. After that, with another bad defeat for Labour looking likely, will Dugdale even survive as leader? Perhaps the most damning response came not at her conference speech which was well-delivered and received, but at her appearance on Question Time the night before conference began. It was, everyone agrees, a car crash of an appearance and perhaps her lowest point was when she made a prepared peroration of her principles which was met by ………utter silence.
David Dimbleby remarked on this and the Edinburgh audience seemed indifferent to her plight.
The other night I attended the opening of the Radical Book Fair in Edinburgh and there was a discussion between Iain Macwhirter and Jim Sillars on the future of politics in Scotland. Sillars was scathing about Dugdale, saying: “I am an old Labour man, an Ayrshire socialist, and it pains me to see Scottish Labour being led by a young woman who needs at least 10 years more experience to become a credible leader.”
Indeed she has described herself as “an accidental leader”. I can’t help feeling that when Labour get another beating, as they will do at next May’s election, members may conclude they need a leader with more gravitas and experience. Neil Findlay must be kicking himself that he didn’t stand for the leadership as on the back of even the limited Corbyn bounce in Scotland he might have won. Alex Rowley, Labour’s deputy leader in Scotland, might also fancy his chances, providing he retains his seat in Cowdenbeath (which is questionable).
So yes Scottish Labour did move to the left and the delegates enjoyed their new freedom of deciding what they should debate, rather than have it dictated from London. For example they took a decision to oppose TTIP in principle, despite the fact that the leading Scottish MEP David Martin is taking it through the Trade Committee in Brussels. Dugdale promised that Scottish Labour would repeal the Tory tax credit cuts if they win next May, despite the fact she won’t have the powers or the money to do so. They will present an election manifesto for next May which is likely to be to the left of the SNP for the first time in many years.
Of course it won’t do them any good, as Derek Bateman observed in these columns recently, the SNP are seen to be speaking for Scotland and the “relative autonomy” of Scottish Labour won’t convince the electorate by next May. However as Harold Macmillan wisely opined many years ago “events, dear boy, events” can change political life. Events like the EVEL debate at Westminster may yet lead to a breakdown between London and Edinburgh.
BREXIT – the possible outcome of an EU referendum fuelled by UKIP hysteria around refugees – could lead to an English vote to leave the EU while Scotland votes to stay. The polls are already hinting at such an outcome. In that scenario the end of the UK may come quickly. Iain Macwhirter said the other night that it could be that we don’t need another referendum to gain independence.
The thinking goes that if the SNP make it clear in their manifesto that these are issues that will cause a breakup of Britain, and as is likely, they win another overall majority then independence could be closer than we think. After all if 30 years ago if you had said the SNP would have all but three MPs in Westminster and a majority in an Edinburgh Parliament, that in itself might be the basis for independence.
As Craig Murray the former ambassador frequently reminds us, the vast majority of countries gaining their independence never needed a referendum. In that situation Scottish Labour would have to decide which side of the fence they were on. Even with their “relative autonomy” and their left wing policies they aren’t seen to speak for Scotland.
If the SNP don’t succeed in gaining independence in the next five years it could be that members and voters will get disillusioned and the SNP honeymoon could come to an end and Scottish Labour could revive. They made a start in Perth by adopting more left-wing policies and asserting their independence from London. Until they deal with their attitude to Scotland’s independence even by adopting a Home Rule policy like Keir Hardie believed in, they won’t win back the 40 per cent of traditional Labour voters that voted SNP last May.
Hugh Kerr is a former Labour MEP who is now in the SNP