Scottish Labour needed to reinvent itself to survive. But not like this

by Rob Marchant

The election of Richard Leonard has, inevitably, provoked jubilation on the Party’s left and despair in the rest of the party. While despair is certainly the more appropriate reaction, there has been some misreading on both sides.

First, let’s deal with the left. Yes, Scottish Labour really needed to reinvent itself, faced with a hegemonic SNP and falling into third place – yes, third, in a country which had previously been solidly Labour as long as anyone could remember – in the 2016 and 2017 elections. But not like this.

Jim Murphy and, later, Kezia Dugdale tried and failed to carry out that reinvention. But the truth is that they were both up against an atrophied Scottish party, made soft and flabby by years of Brown-era coddling.

The history of the last couple of decades is this. Blair’s people kept out of Scotland: meanwhile Brown’s people let things drift. In particular, it allowed radical-dominated unions to take hold of various local parties until they were converted into one-horse-town fiefdoms such as Falkirk CLP, dominated by Unite’s Grangemouth oil refinery operation.

Later, the farrago of a parliamentary selection there in 2013 became the trigger for a radical rewriting of leadership election rules, the use (and abuse) of which helped secure Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader. Meanwhile, the Scottish party itself bumbled into irrelevance, leaving the way clear for the SNP to run Scotland.

Now, instead of coming up with a program which could appeal to the apparent majority of Scots who did not want independence, and rebuilding the trust of their traditional base, the party has now opted for a definitively Corbynite leader in Scotland who merely reinforces the protest-party impotence of Labour north of the border. In other words, an attempt to outflank the SNP to the left: a party which has years of experience of cannily acting left, while delivering in the political centre.

At the moment, any seats lost by the SNP seem more likely to fall to the Tories than Labour, who are now, after all, the official opposition in Holyrood. In order to come through the middle, Labour had to come up with a broad-based offering to Scottish electors; instead, they have opted for a fringe one.

But it also behoves us to look at the reaction of much of the rest of the party to the news of Leonard’s win: the responses of many MPs, even on the right, simply wrong-headed.

The reason we should be concerned at Leonard’s success is not that he is white, male, middle-class or even the fact that he is English not Scottish. Yes, it is notable that many Corbynites are white, male and middle-class. Yes, perhaps Scots may warm more to a Scottish-born leader than an English-born one. But none of these should disqualify someone from the job.

Labour, it is disturbing that we even have to state, is not a chummy club where people are appointed by dint of being from an certain ethnicity or sex. They are elected by local members because they believe them to be the best person for the job.

In short, the idea that we should be attacking Leonard for not being a woman or from an ethnic minority is pitiful.

Why the hell can MPs not be saying the truth? Richard Leonard will be a disaster for the Labour Party not because he is white, male, middle class and English.

Such criticism is not only wrong, but it sends a message, to a public that does not understand why such things should be important, that Labour is obsessed with a candidate’s identity over their talent.

No, Leonard will be a disaster for quite another reason: we are extending Corbynite unicorn-politics north of the border, when its absence at leadership level was about the only thing Scottish Labour politics had going for it.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left

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8 Responses to “Scottish Labour needed to reinvent itself to survive. But not like this”

  1. george silver says:

    Labour in scotland simply took the electorate for granted. It was perceived that the untermensch would simply vote labour and that was the done deal.

    from personal local knowledge in glasgow, time and again, the nepotism and the mates rates and the sinecures were outed but you did nothing … your disinterest and taking for granted finally got caught out and the electorate punished you.

    Now you are tainted beyond even the hatchet job done to the tories after the mass poll tax whine … I mean what was so wrong with paying a set fee for what services you used? Are you going to be a parasite all your life?

    North of the border labour is soiled and grubby. Corbyn is a alien entity from london with little clue. Your new man has already alienated vast numbers barely opening his mouth. RIP labour in scotland.

  2. tafia says:

    Stupidest thing was Leonard (who is English) saying he supports England in football and rugby.

    That will go down in Scotland like a bucket of cold dog sick.

  3. Seems even Rob couldn’t find a way to blame the left for Scottish Labour’s dismal showing in the last few years. It’s hard to give credit in the party’s improvement at the last election to anyone other than the national Labour Corbyn leadership. What does that leave Rob except to say they need more of what Kezia was giving out before she resigned and opted for the ITV jungle dollar. It looks like Rob is now down to baying at the moon. Maybe he should try some of Kezia’s kangaroo testicles.

  4. John says:

    As Philip Gould noticed about Harold Wilson, give him enough rope he’ll hang himself

  5. buttley says:

    Rob, laments the approaching “Corbynite unicorn-politics north of the border”.

    Whereas New labours last two decades in Scotland, can be exemplified by this

    and this

  6. John Cunningham says:

    Rob Marchant’s logic is wierd, if the absence of Corbyn’s ‘unicorn’ politics (whatever that’s supposed to mean) was the only thing the Scottish Labour leadership had going for it, then maybe it should have tried a dose! Labour woes in Scotland have many causes I’m sure, and as someone from south of the border I will not venture into that territory. I will offer two observations: 1) the record of Murray and then Dugdale were, with varying degrees disastrous (credit at least to Dugdale for winning back a few seats). Surely it is time for a different hand on the rudder. If Leonard can ‘do a corbyn’ north of the border then everyone is a winner. 2) There are plenty of people south of the border eating humble pie nowadays, there’s absolutely no reason why this couldn’t be repeated in Scotland. There are worse things than eating humble pie – like getting thrashed at another election. Give Leonard a chance!

  7. uglyfatbloke says:

    Dugdale won a few seats back by mutual back-scratching with the tories, who got a dozen seats thanks to Dugdale’s help. A long-term policy of dong nothing about anything important and working hard to stifle devolution has brought us to where we are. The Scottish situation could have been even worse; the odious Sarwar might have won. The polls are not looking good; a GE next month would probably see us and the tories lose seats. That is not inevitable. Leonard could adopt a radical approach to extending devolution instead of keeping a brake on it. He could advocate a genuinely aggressive approach to tax evasion and using sentencing policy to undermine the stupid cannabis laws. All of these things would make us more popular and put the nats on the back foot.

  8. Latest polling suggests that Labour’s position is strengthening under its new leadership. With many SNP seats becoming SNP/Labour marginals surely this is something that should be applauded by the entire party.

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