Hugh Kerr previews the Scottish Labour conference
Scottish Labour are preparing for their first conference since they elected new leader Kezia Dugdale in Scotland.
Dugdale is unlikely to set the heather on fire, given that she has been acting leader in Holyrood for the last year and has been underwhelming in her appearances, in my view.
So Labour members in Scotland will be asking: can the Jeremy Corbyn effect work in Scotland? There has been some increase in party membership but not to the same proportion as in England. Interestingly only 5,000 people in Scotland voted for Kezia Dugdale to become leader, which suggests Labour membership is much less than 15,000. Of course in Scotland there is an alternative to Labour, the SNP, currently the most successful political party in Europe with its quadrupling of its membership in the past year to 114,000 and a 30-point lead in the opinion polls.
Can Scottish Labour challenge this juggernaut? It seems unlikely in the short term. Katy Clark, who had been the best of the Labour MPs in Scotland until May 5, was asked on radio recently whether Labour might do better in Scotland next May. No, she said, “we will do worse because Labour is a toxic brand in Scotland at present”.
So what events in Perth can turn Scottish Labour around? Well there is the appearance of Jeremy Corbyn himself.Also the Campaign for Socialism in Scotland has launched Momentum in Scotland, the grassroots organisation which is meant to strengthen his leadership across the country. So far there is little sign of it taking off: Corbyn’s major problem is that he has the wrong message for Scotland: Yes, he is against Trident and austerity but even those positions have become clouded as he deals with a parliamentary group, 90 per cent of which didn’t vote for him and some of whom are actively plotting against him.
However, as Derek Bateman observed acutely in these columns, the SNP have the most important message of all. They are seen as the party that speaks for Scotland. Corbyn seems to be in favour of independence everywhere in the world — particularly Ireland — but not for Scotland. That does not resonate well, particularly with the 40 per cent of Labour voters who voted Yes and then for the SNP.
On Election Day in May I was rung up by a unionist friend who had gone over to Paisley to work for his old friend Douglas Alexander,he said ” Hugh I can’t believe what is happening in Scotland. I have just canvassed a whole street in a council estate in Paisley and they are all voting SNP.” The seat was won by Mairi Black.
My friends in Scottish Labour tell me that the Scottish conference will shift sharply to the left. For the first time since 1997 the conference will be allowed to vote on Trident. In 1997 it voted 80 per cent against Trident. There is no doubt that it will vote similarly again although we might see some tricks by trade union leaders concerned about their members jobs at Faslane, although only about 600 workers are directly employed on Trident. This will be welcomed by most people in Labour although of course it will be pointed out by Labour’s defence spokesperson Maria Eagle,that this is a decision which will be taken in London not Scotland. It will also prove embarrassing for Kezia Dugdale as she has in the past loyally supported the London line on Trident but I suspect she will show some ” flexibility” on this issue.
It is also likely that the Scottish Labour conference will come out strongly against all fracking, particularly in the light of the SNP moratorium. Outflanking the SNP on fracking in Scotland could bring them some traction with the environmental movement although again it should be noted that in England the party favours a similar moratorium.
Scottish Labour may also take a stronger position on the Transatlantic Trade Treaty (TTIP), again adopting outright opposition rather than the SNP position, which is to exclude public services. The SNP conference did not discuss motions or amendments which took a stronger opposition to TTIP, so Labour could outflank them on this. Again this would raise major problems for them with the UK party, whose position is very similar to the SNP. It might also cause them difficulty with their MEPs in Brussels, not least with the senior Scottish Labour MEP David Martin who is the socialist leader on the European Parliament Trade Committee. Martin’s position on TTIP is very similar to the SNP MEPs, i.e. to protect public services from TTIP. Indeed as a former MEP I remember the leader of the Labour MEPs in Brussels pushing TTIP 15 years ago.
My Labour friends tell me the key strategist taking Scottish Labour Left is not Dugdale but deputy leader Alex Rowley, once known as Gordon Brown’s man in Scotland. Whether or not he still listens to Gordon Brown, Alex Rowley has a history of disagreeing with London Labour and indeed was sacked by them in 2011 as general secretary of Scottish Labour. Sources suggest that Rowley wants to stress the independence of Scottish Labour and is prepared to move them to the left but also even embrace a more radical position on devolution, perhaps as far as a federalist home rule solution.
Whether he can get the more hard line unionists to go along with this shift is an open question. Gordon Brown is said to be very unhappy that his legacy — “The Vow” and the Smith Commission — has not been delivered. He may be happy for Scottish Labour to adopt a tougher stance on devolution. Again they may find major problems with their London paymasters, but asserting their freedom from London could be the move that convinces Scotland that they truly are their own masters.
Scottish Labour will move to the left in Perth and assert its independence from London but will it be sufficient to halt its decline and fall? I think it’s unlikely in the short term.The council by-elections over the past months show a continued shift to the SNP and all the opinion polls show a healthy lead for the party. The SNP could win almost all the first past the post seats for the Scottish Parliament, as they did in the Westminster elections in May. Some Labour optimists think Alex Rowley might retain his Cowdenbeath seat as “he is so well embedded” . We should remember the same thing was said of Douglas Alexander and Gordon Brown’s Kirkcaldy. The truth is that in the political tsunami that is the rise of the SNP almost all will be swept away in its wake.
What will happen on the regional lists of the Scottish Parliament elections may prove more interesting. The proportional system of election was meant to ensure that no one party would gain a majority, but in 2011 the SNP vote broke that model. It is very likely that this will occur again next May. What is less likely is that the SNP will gain many seats on the regional lists, having won most first past the post seats. That leaves open the question of how SNP voters treat their list vote. It was interesting to observe at their conference the SNP leadership pushing the line “vote first and second” for the SNP.
However there is anecdotal evidence that not all SNP voters will follow suit and some may favour other independence-supporting parties.The Greens are likely to be the major beneficiaries of the second vote and current polls suggest they may win as many as 8-10 seats rather like they did in 2003 when they gained seven. The 2003 Scottish election produced what became known as the “rainbow parliament”.
The Greens are likely to retain Patrick Harvie their leader in Glasgow on the list but not any more,not least because they have annoyed the SNP by standing Patrick Harvie against Sandra White in Glasgow Kelvin. This leaves six or seven regional list seats up for grabs. The favoured scenario sees Labour winning around four list seats in Glasgow, a pattern that’s likely to be repeated around the regional lists.
In Edinburgh the Greens in their strongest base are likely to win two seats not least because their number two on the list is land reform campaigner Andy Wightman. The new party on the left is RISE, an electoral alliance mainly comprised of what’s left of the Scottish Socialist Party, and splits from Socialist Workers Party.RISE stands for Respect, Independence,Socialism and Environmentalism. It is unlikely to poll very well despite lots of favourable coverage in the Herald newspaper.
One of the keys to electoral success is recognition by the electorate of both the party and its leader. In 2003 Tommy Sheridan was one of the best known politicians in Scotland and the Scottish Socialist Party had been established for five years.
RISE has six months to get itself known and I predict it will poll around 1-2% of the vote. Also polling around those numbers will be TUSC, the Trade Union Socialist Coalition mainly backed by the Socialist Party of Scotland.There may also be candidates from other small groups including Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party.
So the likely outcome of the Scottish Parliament election is an SNP majority with up to 76 seats, a reduced number of Labour MSPs (maybe under 30), a block of Tories (12-15), 8-10 Greens, two or three Liberals and maybe one socialist.
Whatever the result ,it is unlikely to see any revival of Scottish Labour’s fortunes, despite their move to the left. As Katy Clark says, the brand remains toxic and it may take more than one election to change that. It would also witness an end to the extraordinary popularity of the SNP and there is no sign of that yet.
If the SNP fail to deliver a second referendum by 2020 then there will be growing discontent among its supporters. After all, if you can’t win a referendum for independence under an unpopular Tory government with a weak and divided Labour Party, then when could you?
Hugh Kerr is a former Labour MEP, expelled by Blair, he joined The Green Group in the European Parliament as a socialist. he was Tommy Sheridan’s press officer and the first co-chair of the SSP.he is currently a member of the SNP