The left field of British politics is going to be very interesting over the next year or two, not because of what the new Labour Party leadership might achieve but, more likely, because of how they might fail.
On Saturday, Lothians Labour MSP Kezia Dugdale was elected as Scottish leader and, although there is still a month of campaigning and voting to go, left-winger Jeremy Corbyn is expected to win the position of UK Labour leader by the pollsters, bookies and many independent commentators. Both Dugdale and Corbyn will have a mountain to climb.
Kezia Dugdale may have the shortest honeymoon of the two leaders as she has to take her Labour team into battle for next May’s Scottish Parliament elections and will have to show some improvement. If the party suffers a second SNP landslide in a year there could be bitter recriminations directed towards both her and Corbyn that will open up old wounds and possibly force her out. Patience will be required amongst the party faithful if they are to give Dugdale a fair chance of turning her party around for Labour is so far behind. It will take time, much cunning and some luck.
There are a number of problems that Dugdale must resolve – the most crucial being to make her party relevant again. Unfortunately this is not being helped by Corbyn’s announcement that he would work with the SNP at Westminster in the future if it meant Labour could form a government. This was precisely the issue that scared many English voters to support the Conservatives – but more ominously for Dugdale it makes voting for Labour in Scotland pointless. Why vote Labour when the SNP can represent you in alliance with Corbyn, possible extracting some preferential treatment for Scotland in the process?
Corbyn needs to rethink his position and work to strengthen Dugdale’s importance, not undermine it.
Already Dugdale has clarified that she will be able to work with Corbyn and yesterday gave his campaign manager in Scotland, Neil Findlay, a role in helping her liaise with the trade unions.
As I’ve written before, she, like other opposition politicians, needs to find ways of bringing the SNP’s poor record on areas such as education, health and policing to the fore, but so far this has eluded past Scottish leaders such as Iain Gray, Johann Lamont and Jim Murphy – so why we should expect Dugdale to be any better is not obvious.
While the immediacy of the Holyrood elections will provide focus and a test for Scottish Labour’s leadership, it will also place pressures on Corbyn if he takes the helm next month. Corbyn is seen as being from the old Labour traditions that lost four elections in England – but which never fell out of favour in Scotland. Party followers hope that he will be able to reconnect with former Labour supporters who have switched to the SNP by offering a more robust anti-austerity red-blooded socialism than Ed Miliband managed.
This may indeed be possible but it is a double-edged sword for if it fails where does Labour go next? Corbyn will have tested the attractiveness of far-left policies to destruction (as have many before him) and going further left would simply make matters worse. More intriguingly, an outspoken Corbyn pushing an unashamedly far-left political platform could drive some in the Labour Party to peel away and form a more moderate social justice party.
This scenario is possibly wishful thinking by some of Corbyn’s proponents for amongst his backers are some strange bedfellows. First there are the “Tories for Corbyn” who have been urging Conservative supporters to join Labour for the £3 membership fee so they can vote for Corbyn as the most extreme leader possible. This is because they think he will be such a disaster that any Conservative leader will be able to win the next election against him.
They believe he will either split the Labour Party like Michael Foot did in the early 1980s – so that there are two weaker parties that detest each other more than they do the Conservatives – or cause enough to divide it and damage it to make it unelectable.
Then there is a group of Labour supporters who quietly support Corbyn as they too believe he will be a disaster and would have to resign before the general election campaign. This would mean a fresh leadership election where they would be able to push forward a new candidate, or candidates, who are not yet ready to put themselves forward.
This might all sound too-clever-by-half but this is precisely the sort of plotting that goes on in politics, especially when there is a dearth of strong and commanding personalities. All of this will be happening at the same time as the Conservative government seeks to make trade union political donations require members to “opt-in” to their political fund rather than “opt-out” as they mostly do now. This will turn the screw on Labour funding if Corbyn’s policy positions hurt Labour finances if he drives financial support away.
If Corbyn and Dugdale can resolve Labour’s problems, Labour will deserve to win again.