'Elections are won, in the end, by leadership – which Dugdale has and Corbyn never will have'

Written by John McTernan on 27 February 2017 in Comment

Writing ahead of the Scottish Labour conference, John McTernan argues that what Labour needs is leadership and purpose

John McTernan - Image credit: David Anderson/Holyrood

What unites Labour north and south of the border? Both UK Labour and Scottish Labour have fallen far behind the Conservative Party.

The reasons why this has happened overlap but are, at base, quite different in both countries. But, fundamentally, the lessons for Labour’s recovery in both Scotland and England are the same.

First, there is the question of leadership. Jeremy Corbyn has broken records for negative poll ratings during his short leadership – he is now behind every single demographic.

There is no better demonstration of the leadership difference than his impact on UK Labour. A slow but inexorable decline is the hallmark of the Corbyn era.

Leadership is not the challenge for Scottish Labour – Kezia Dugdale is head and shoulders above anyone else in Scottish Labour.

And she is more than a match for Nicola Sturgeon as the weekly joust of First Minister’s Questions shows.

Dugdale’s challenge is the deeper one of purpose.

We know that she is not a cipher for Corbyn – nor are her members Corbynites, the membership in Scotland plumped for Owen Smith in last year’s leadership contest. We also know she is not a nationalist or a Tory.

What remains unclear is what Scottish Labour stands for.

This leads to the second question – the question of purpose. The SNP’s intent is plain. All is, in the end, subordinated to the goal of independence.

Under the leadership of Ruth Davidson, perhaps the greatest politician who never joined Scottish New Labour, the Scottish Conservatives are clear what they are for – the Union.

Ruth also understands the iron rule of politics that you define yourself as much by what you are against as by what you are for and she resolutely opposes all tax increases.

Scottish Labour, in contrast, are absolutely for an increase – which is principled, and a position shared with UK Labour’s Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, but since the mid-1970s has been death to all political parties in the developed world.

And on independence they have no real clarity. Dugdale opposes independence but has sounded ambivalent about whether Labour will mobilise its forces in a grand coalition against separation as it did in 2014.

Which is the third observation about the plight of Labour – Dugdale’s party is a glimpse of Corbyn’s future.

As the independence referendum became the defining cleavage of Scottish politics, so the Brexit vote is dividing the rest of the country.

Scottish Labour has shown the truth of the adage that if you stand in the middle of the road, you get run down.

But just as Corbyn has refused to learn from Labour history the lesson that the party only wins from the centre left not the far left, so he hasn’t learnt from Scotland – that when a referendum divides a country, you have to choose a side and stick to it.

No Labour MP came into Westminster to make working people poorer – but the majority of them voted for the invoking of Article 50, which will do just that.

No thinking Labour MP believes that Brexit will do anything other than weaken the UK economy.

No Scottish Labour MSP with a brain believes that there is any case for Scotland leaving a fiscal union with the UK which transfers £10bn a year northwards, for a customs union which would demand an annual membership fee of £2bn.

In both Scotland and the UK, the right thing to do in principle is the right thing to do in practice.

Scottish Labour should be unremittingly against independence and UK Labour should be fervently pro-European. Neither position will win them an election but equivocation will surely lose votes.

Elections are won, in the end, by leadership – which Dugdale has and Corbyn never will have. But they are also won by purpose – plans for transformative change.

The referendums have muddied politics across the UK just as they have in Scotland, but the challenge of politics remains, as the great New Zealand Labour prime minister Norman Kirk put it when he said people want: “Someone to love, somewhere to live, somewhere to work and something to hope for.”

When Scottish and UK Labour can speak to that then they will be heard again.

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