Thursday, 23 November 2017

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

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.

This post first published at Labour Uncut

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