Identity crisis: the struggle within Scottish Labour to decide what it stands for

Written by Tom Freeman on 8 March 2019 in Inside Politics

Scottish Labour heads to its party conference in Dundee with a fight to be recognised

Richard Leonard with young Labour campaigners - Image credit: Alamy

At a UK level, the Labour Party has an existential struggle between a membership that overwhelmingly wants to remain in the European Union and an electorate in the party’s safe seats that is desperate to leave.

In Scotland, though, Labour members and Labour voters are aligned in wishing for a Brexit reversal.

On paper, this should have made leader Richard Leonard’s job easier, but the reality is this would have meant the Scottish party distanced itself from the UK position, something which, in turn, would have created difficulty for the party’s seven MPs.

Furthermore, left-winger Leonard might have expected the boost in the polls for his party that followed Jeremy Corbyn’s 2017 general election manifesto to continue.

The Brexit position, however, would seem to be taking its toll.

A YouGov poll for the People’s Vote campaign in January suggested the party faces a historic defeat in Scotland if Labour passes a Brexit deal in the Commons.

In stark terms, the poll of 2,000 Scots put Labour at 21 per cent if it refuses to facilitate Brexit, but only 15 per cent if Labour MPs back a deal.

This was followed by a UK-wide poll analysis in February which suggested Labour could lose five MPs in Scotland at a general election: Ged Killen, Paul Sweeney, Lesley Laird, Danielle Rowley and Hugh Gaffney.

Whichever way you look at it, the polling is bad news for a party that once dominated Scotland.

Even the higher figure is down on the 27.1 per cent recorded at the 2017 general election, and even the record low 22.6 per cent share of the constituency vote at the 2016 Scottish Parliament election.

Leonard’s trade union, GMB Scotland, which he worked with for 20 years, has now been scathing of his leadership.

In an interview with the Herald on Sunday, the union’s secretary Gary Smith questioned the credibility of Scottish Labour’s position.

“Where is Labour’s offer in Scotland? Where is Labour recognising the fact that the people in this country voted to stay? I think there was a way of bringing that to life,” he said.

“Their failure to find a way of articulating where Scotland is on Brexit is certainly going to cost them votes.”

Meanwhile, the party’s conference in Dundee represents a bid to reassert itself as a radical alternative, focusing on the fight against austerity in an attempt to swing the debate away from constitutional angst to one the party faithful say really matters.

But at a time when the political spectrum is divided along the lines of membership of the EU or Scottish independence, the message is a hard sell.

Ahead of conference, Jeremy Corbyn said: “I am proud that Scottish Labour offers a clear alternative to austerity under the Tories and the SNP.

“Labour will invest in our people, our communities, our public services and our industries.

 “Scotland and the whole of the UK need a radical and transformative Labour government.

 “A Labour government that will create high-skilled and well-paid jobs, strengthen our trade unions and workers’ rights, and end exploitative zero-hours contracts.

“A Labour government that will invest £70 billion in Scotland over ten years and build an economy that works for the many, not the few.

“The real divide in our country is not between working class people who voted Remain or Leave in the EU referendum, or Yes or No for independence.

“The real divide is between the many who do the work, create the wealth and pay taxes – and the few, who set the rules, reap the rewards and so often dodge their taxes.

“Labour does not want to divide our communities. We want to bring people together.”

A message of unity may be a tough sell at a time when the party is not only divided but there has also been a high-profile exodus.

Eight MPs quit the party to form the Independent Group, with a list of grievances against the leadership including socialist economics, its handling of Brexit and allegations of antisemitism.

Antisemitism was also cited as the reason another MP on the right of the party, Ian Austin, quit.

Austin didn’t join the Independent Group, possibly because he sits in a leave-voting constituency, and although the group of MPs has no party or policies, it seems to be coalescing around attempts to scupper Brexit.

As yet, no Scottish Labour politicians have joined the splitters, but Edinburgh South MP Ian Murray suggested fellow centrists were being “pushed to the brink”.

“It seems to me as if the Labour leadership are trolling MPs, they’re pushing them out the door, taking us to the brink and asking us to jump, and really, that’s not the way you try and bring the party back together, and I think people can see that for what it is.”

Indeed, at the Scottish Liberal Democrat conference, leader Willie Rennie suggested some MSPs may even join his party, from both Labour and the Conservatives.

He said: “I talk to lots of people on either side and I know they are incredibly frustrated by the direction of travel for their parties, and the way that they have personally been treated in some cases as well.

“Whether it is enough, time will tell. But once the dam breaks in Scotland, there is potential for them to come. I’m keen to encourage that to happen.”

While Murray and Corbyn are both calling for Labour to come together, neither can claim to have been effective in doing so.

After Murray’s comments on the Independent Group, a group of his branch members was quoted on the Corbyn-supporting Red Robin blog as being furious with their MP.

“Our MP may be waiting to see which way the political wind blows, but members will expect him to come to our next CLP with clarity or we will start the business of finding our new candidate to fight for Labour,” they said.

Murray accused the site of spreading “total rubbish”.

“You’ve spent the last 24 hours attacking me for recognising why my former colleagues and friends left the Labour Party.

“We should be addressing why rather than making up stories with unattributed ‘member’ quotes and total rubbish about my politics and constituency,” he said.

Whether deselection threats are real or manufactured, a real internal struggle is the one for Scottish Labour’s Scottish Executive Committee [SEC], which pits those who are supportive of the UK leadership against those who are not.

The internal elections saw left-wing candidates organise around a pro-Corbyn anti-austerity ticket, while moderates coalesced around rejection of the party’s response to Brexit.

Among the left slate was the party’s vice-chair, existing SEC member and former Dunfermline MSP, Cara Hilton, who said the party was in policy development mode ahead of the next Holyrood election, due in 2020.

“We have a leadership team in Jeremy Corbyn and Richard Leonard offering real, radical change and the very real prospect of putting our values of solidarity, cooperation, fairness and equality into practice,” she said.

“We must move forward united to bring real change to our party.”

However, figures leaked to the Herald on Sunday revealed the party has lost nearly 5,000 members in Scotland since Leonard was elected leader.

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