A year of Labour leadership contests, yet the party has failed to arrest its decline
Looking back over the past 12 months for the Holyrood Review, it’s hard to believe that it’s just a year since Kezia Dugdale was overwhelmingly elected leader of the Scottish Labour Party. And since then she has failed to arrest its slide into near oblivion.
Having been deputy leader when the party was traduced to just one Scottish MP under the ill-fated leadership of Jim Murphy, she then went on to lead the party into third place in the Scottish elections of this year, putting it, unbelievably, behind what can no longer be described as the toxic Tories.
And now on the back of such abject failure, she feels qualified by her experience of defeat to urge her fellow comrades to not re-elect as leader, the one man that has given the party membership a boost.
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There is simply no denying that over the course of the past decade, the Labour Party in Scotland has gone from a position of supreme power to slow decline, to near extinction.
After winning 69 per cent of the Scottish Westminster seats in 2005, it lost control at Holyrood in 2007 to a minority SNP administration and then repeated in 2011 when it was well and truly gubbed and the SNP held a majority.
It then lost all but one of its Westminster seats in 2015 and in 2016, managed to cap its humiliation by trailing into third place at Holyrood behind the Conservatives. And with council elections just around the corner and with no obvious signs of recovery, Dugdale’s success at failing can only get better.
The reasons behind Labour’s near extinction in Scotland are complex and can clearly not be laid solely at Dugdale’s door but a good starting point is with the leadership’s continued disconnect from who and what it stands for and if Dugdale’s public endorsement of Owen Smith, a candidate praised by others for ‘at least not being Jeremy Corbyn’ is anything to go by, it is a lesson still to be learned.
With the polls predicting a landslide for Corbyn in the leadership contest, more than half of Labour’s Scottish CLPs endorsing him to win and her own deputy leader, Alex Rowley, throwing his weight behind the dogged MP for Islington North, Dugdale might have been best advised to follow her own vow of silence from last year when she declined to publically endorse any of the leadership contenders in what is increasingly becoming an annual event.
Because what happens if Corbyn wins?
But this should be Owen Smith’s moment. With the backing of Dugdale and now also the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, the little known MP for Pontypridd who unexpectedly threw his hat in the leadership ring should have been celebrating his best week ever in an increasingly abusive UK Labour leadership contest. Instead, he appeared to call Corbyn a lunatic and it all went wrong.
No wonder they call this the silly season.
But it is heady times. It’s hardly believable that only 10 weeks have passed since the EU referendum and the shockwaves still reverberate.
I was writing my column for the last issue of Holyrood before recess and I had to go back and check and recheck the dates because I couldn’t quite believe that the referendum had just been five days earlier and in that time we had seen the PM resign, Nigel Farage resign, the England football manager resign, the shadow cabinet all but resign, Boris Johnson resign – and indeed, it felt like the only person refusing to resign was Corbyn. And he was the one his fellow MPs wanted out.
So with three party leadership contests, a new Prime Minister, the Labour Party imploding and the realisation that there was no Brexit plan, Scotland strangely, given our history, has appeared an oasis of political stability with Nicola Sturgeon showing what true leadership is all about – fighting for the democratic wishes of the people of the country she governs – even if that jars with her reaction to the last referendum result and ignores some harsh economic realities, confirmed by last week’s GERS figures.
Of course, it may prove to be wishful thinking on the SNP’s part that Scotland could exit a Brexit but at least Scotland has been seen to be doing something.
I hosted a drinks reception in the House of Commons for Scottish MPs just a week after the referendum and in the spirit of the topsy-turvy world we now occupy, I showed what an inclusive bunch we Scots really are by welcoming the first English MP, Dave Anderson, to ever be appointed shadow secretary of state for Scotland, and I told him that I am sure in that same spirit of inclusivity, an independent Scotland would look favourably on England’s application to join the EU.
How we all laughed.
Then four weeks later, he joined in the fun by claiming a Labour Party led by Corbyn could do a deal with the SNP to keep the Tories out. His comments were denounced by Scottish Labour and former MP Ian Davidson who rather menacingly said Anderson had now been ‘re-educated’.
So, it seems that in this shaken up politics, where Nigel Farage can share a stage with Donald Trump and together claim to be the true champions of the anti-establishment, there is a price not worth paying for Labour to keep the Tories out. One which also comes with one longstanding cost from which it will be slow to recover.