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Scottish election 2016: the anti-establishment ticket

Scottish election 2016: the anti-establishment ticket

Radicalism is a virtue again, apparently. At least in talk if not in action. 

However whether the Scottish Labour party's manifesto will live up to leader Kezia Dugdale’s claim to be “the most radical manifesto ever” remains to be seen. 

Certainly the party’s plans for a two-tier council tax replacement bears a closer resemblance to the findings of an underwhelming commission than it does to Das Kapital.

The party faced criticism for dropping its £100 rebate for low earners, but party activists argue it was a measure designed to last one year and has been made redundant by George Osborne raising the tax free allowance.


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Dudgale’s warm-up act at the party conference, however, was a number of fiery young activists who used the platform to talk of class war, Corbyn and climbing the barricades. 
It was the language of militant youth, the kind of language which once got you expelled from the party.

Now, however, from Syriza and Podemos to the support for Trump and Sanders in the US primaries, voters everywhere appear to have had enough of well-rehearsed established political discourse. 

At a UK level Labour itself is struggling with this as Jeremy Corbyn’s huge mandate will attest.

In Scotland, though, the challenge for Labour is to cast the SNP in the role of the establishment while shaking off its own image as an integral part of it. After all, Labour was the UK government only six years ago.

In truth, the SNP is now the establishment in Scotland whether it likes it or not. Record numbers of MPs infiltrated the ‘dark star’ of London last year but as well as being diminished by two suspensions, they have become ever more part of the Westminster machine.

Somehow, though, the SNP still maintains an image of rebellion.

Labour isn’t the only party looking to shake up that image. At the Scottish Conservative conference, David Cameron talked of Scotland as a “one-party state” without a hint of irony.
“They’ve been in power for nine years – they are the establishment,” he said.

It’s hard to imagine the Scottish Conservatives picking up any anti-establishment votes, but with Nicola Sturgeon herself claiming this election is about the SNP’s record in government, can her party really keep up its anti-establishment shtick?

Certainly the opinion polls so far show an electorate largely disinterested in using their regional list vote for a genuinely anti-establishment alternative like the Scottish Greens or RISE, despite the SNP leadership apparently resisting calls from its own members to be more radical on fracking or land reform.

Dugdale’s pitch was that Labour would be “less interested in taking selfies and more interested in taking on the establishment”.

But, putting to one side the fact Dugdale herself has featured in a selfie or two, how can Labour take on an establishment with many of its own members still at the top of it? 

Scottish Labour has at least 29 peers in the House of Lords. It remains the party of former chancellor and chairman of Better Together, Alistair Darling, who is now a director at Morgan Stanley.

Dugdale’s attempts to reform the party in Scotland in the last year have been significant. The party has more autonomy over policy, membership and candidate selection than ever before.

But its anti-establishment credentials were hardly helped by the selection of Anas Sarwar at the top of the Glasgow regional list, a man who lost Glasgow Central by a 27 per cent swing to the SNP only last year. The same size of swing saw Thomas Docherty humiliated in Dunfermline and West Fife, yet he has been placed third on this year’s regional list.

Convincing SNP voters that those they rejected 12 months ago would represent an anti-establishment option seems a tall order.

“We’re here to tell the First Minister that there are no foregone conclusions in a democracy,” said Dugdale.

“We’re here to tell her not to take her power for granted. We’re here to tell her not to take people for granted.”

I guess Labour would know.

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