Ian Swanson: Expect unexpected in age of surprises

Jeremy Corbyn is announced as the new Labour leader on Saturday. Picture: Getty
Jeremy Corbyn is announced as the new Labour leader on Saturday. Picture: Getty
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WHAT do new UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and the SNP have in common? As well as an anti-austerity message, opposition to Trident and a shared horror at most of the Tories’ policies, the answer is they have both achieved stunning political victories which confounded the experts and the establishment.

The Nationalists, once firmly on the fringes of Scottish politics, won an unprecedented overall majority in the Scottish Parliament in 2011 and then came within five per cent of a Yes vote for independence.

Mr Corbyn, a rank outsider at the start of the Labour leadership contest, ended up winning last weekend with an astonishing 60 per cent of the votes against three rivals.

Critics say he is “unelectable” as Prime Minister but just a few months ago, everyone thought he was unelectable as leader.

We live in an age of political surprises where things which seemed unthinkable – like Labour being reduced to just one Scottish MP – have come about. Received wisdom, pundits’ predictions and establishment assumptions have to be called into question more than ever before.

Mr Corbyn’s election was greeted with elation by his supporters and bitter comments from some Blairites. Most Labour MPs did not want him as leader, but many senior figures, including Edinburgh South MP and shadow Scottish secretary Ian Murray, have taken the sensible and responsible approach of being ready to work with him rather than going off in the huff.

Despite his own very clear policy positions, Mr Corbyn has made clear he wants debate in the party. He has indicated he will be flexible and has done his best to be inclusive in putting together his shadow team.

But his opponents need to remember the massive mandate he has just been given. The refreshing note of authenticity he brought to the leadership contest saw thousands of members of the public signing up to the party and the scale of his victory was beyond anyone’s expectations.

Labour has too often been seen as simply Tory-lite – ready, for instance, to abstain recently in a key vote on welfare cuts. It is a forlorn strategy to try to win elections by advocating spending cuts, just not quite as damaging as the Tories’ ones.

Mr Corbyn’s politics may be ridiculed and rubbished by many, but the anti-austerity and anti-Trident stances have not done the SNP any harm. Renationalising the railways is popular with the public. And there has never been a proper debate about whether austerity is really the answer to the current economic problems.

Mr Corbyn is asking people to think again and look at different approaches. He wants Labour to break the comfortable consensus which has grown up between the main parties.

The new Labour leader could give the party in Scotland a boost ahead of the Holyrood elections next year. The SNP can no longer use their “red Tories” jibe or suggest there’s no difference between the Westminster parties. Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale has pledged to work with Mr Corbyn, but it is still an uphill task to restore Labour fortunes north of the Border after the devastating rejection by the voters just earlier this year.

At UK level, Labour’s chances of winning the 2020 general election have never looked good, regardless of who became leader. Boundary changes will put the party at a disadvantage.

But that election is still four years away – and there may be more surprises ahead.

ian.swanson@edinburghnews.com