Ian Swanson: Labour fight is poisoned chalice

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IT’S still more than three weeks before Labour names its new UK leader. The protracted four-way contest to succeed Ed Miliband following May’s general election defeat is doing the party no favours. Any hopes of an open and constructive debate about future direction and policy have been disappointed.

And while Labour focuses on whether it wants Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Jeremy Corbyn or Liz Kendall at the helm, the new majority Tory government at Westminster has been able, as Kezia Dugdale frankly admitted, to “run amok” with its welfare cuts and other controversial measures.

Ms Dugdale’s own contest with Ken Macintosh for the Scottish Labour leadership – which she won comfortably – appeared tame compared with the bitter clashes over the UK role.

Corbyn’s surprise popularity among members and has caused consternation in the higher echelons of the party. And the level of open abuse has been astonishing, with MPs who nominated Corbyn in order to allow a debate being branded “morons”, senior figures saying they would refuse to serve in a Corbyn shadow cabinet and Tony Blair commenting that anyone who felt their heart was with Corbyn needed a transplant. It is easy to imagine that if left-wingers behaved in such a way they would be condemned as wreckers and their loyalty to the party would be questioned.

Critics claim Corbyn would make Labour “unelectable” because his policies are too left wing. But in Scotland, anti-austerity and scrapping Trident were key parts of the SNP’s election-winning campaign and public opinion across the UK is in favour of renationalising the railways.

A poll last week found that in addition to his lead among party members, Corbyn was also more popular than the other candidates with the wider electorate. In the Survation survey of 1000 people, Corbyn came out top for personal qualities and who would best hold the government to account as leader of the opposition.

On who would make the best prime minister, Andy Burnham was narrowly ahead with 25 per cent, against 24 per cent for Corbyn and the two men were tied on 26 per cent on who would be the most likely to win the next general election as Labour leader.

Asked which candidate would make them more likely to vote Labour, 32 per cent said Corbyn, compared with 25 per cent for Burnham, 22 per cent for Kendall and 20 per cent for Cooper.

Although the general election defeat came as a huge disappointment for the party, Labour’s performance south of the Border was not the total disaster seen in Scotland. The party’s vote in England increased by 3.5 per cent while the Tories rose 1.5 per cent and Labour made a net gain of 15 seats.

Mr Corbyn has suggested he is the candidate best placed to win back the thousands of Scottish voters who deserted Labour for the SNP – and a Corbyn victory would certainly force a change in the “red Tories” jibes.

But whichever candidate emerges as victor on September 12, Labour’s chances of winning the next UK general election in 2020 do not look good.

David Cameron plans to stand down, so there will be a new Tory leader, which can sometimes give a new lease of life to an ailing government – a la John Major in 1992.

Harder to overcome will be the effect of boundary changes, expected to work to Labour’s disadvantage, meaning the party might have to gain 106 seats to win power.

And who knows how the Labour-SNP battle will stand by then?

ian.sweanson@edinburghnews.com