Ian Swanson: Labour pains remain as party gathers

Jeremy Corbyn and Kezia Dugdale at Holyrood. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Jeremy Corbyn and Kezia Dugdale at Holyrood. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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GEORGE Osborne’s humiliating defeat in the House of Lords over tax credit cuts has given Labour a boost as they prepare for their Scottish conference this weekend.

It’s a reminder that despite the Conservatives’ narrow overall Commons majority and the vitriol heaped on new UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, the Tories can’t count on getting everything their own way.

The fact the embarrassment is focused on the man often hailed as the Tories’ master tactician and the favourite to be next prime minister makes the moment all the sweeter for the opposition.

It will give Mr Corbyn a positive start when he addresses the conference in Perth on Friday.

But Labour still has huge problems as it looks ahead to next year’s Holyrood elections. All the signs are the SNP is on course to win an even bigger victory than last time.

Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale is playing a long game – not pretending she can win in 2016, but hoping to avoid a disaster and then build for the future.

But Labour’s biggest problem in Scotland is that voters have not so much opted for an alternative SNP agenda as decided the SNP is now better at doing what Labour was supposed to do – govern from the centre-left, safeguard Scotland’s interests and fend off the worst excesses of a Tory government in London. That makes it much harder to mount a comeback.

The announcement this week that the Scottish Labour Party is to have more autonomy – including taking control of policy and candidate selection for Westminster elections – is a good move, but will be regarded by many as overdue and hardly radical.

It doesn’t help that Labour has claimed before that it was changing and making sure the real power was transferred to Scotland.

When Johann Lamont became leader in 2011, she was the first person to be leader of the entire Scottish Labour Party rather than just the MSP group. That was supposed to strengthen her hand, but it made little difference – as her own “branch office” jibe showed all too clearly.

Jim Murphy seemed to think the answer lay in redrafting the party’s constitution to include a pledge to work in “the patriotic interest of the people of Scotland”. But the party’s problems were more serious than that.

Ms Dugdale is on much better ground in focusing on the shortcomings in the SNP’s record in government. It may not do her much good in the short term – polls show people are not universally impressed with what’s been happening on health, education and justice, but still plan to vote SNP anyway.

That suggests voters at the moment don’t think Labour has anything better to offer. But trying to come up with convincing alternative policies must be the way for any political party to go.

In the end, however, many voters may feel Labour has had its chance. It did dominate Scottish politics for half a century, after all. Nicola Sturgeon, in a stinging comment at her own party conference earlier this month, warned SNP members: “Scottish Labour stands as a constant reminder to our party of what we must never become – they were arrogant, lazy and complacent.”

One hope for Labour, however, might be that the dramatic change of leadership in the UK party sends a signal of a genuinely new approach which captures the imagination of voters weary of old ways and uninspired by politics as usual. The SNP has benefited from an apparently new mood. Could Labour follow suit?

ian.swanson@edinburghnews.com