Despite party rules that forbid badmouthing other candidates, the UK Labour leadership contest is descending into mud wrestling. Although it’s hard for outsiders to distinguish many differences among these clone children of New Labour, they themselves insist that distinction exists, if only as negatives. According to the New Statesman, Yvette Cooper’s camp recently spattered their rival for second place with:
“Andy needs to show some leadership and be clear whether he opposes Jeremy or not. Our figures show he will drop out in the second round because his campaign is failing to provide an effective alternative to Jeremy.”
“Old-style bullying by the boys”
To which the Burnham camp accused Cooper of:
“A desperate, panicked stunt since it was completely untrue that she was in second place.”
“Yvette has no chance of winning and is continuing only because of her pride; she should stand down”
Contrast such unedifying rammies with the relative dignity of the Labour leadership contest in Scotland. Congratulations are due Kezia Dugdale, the clear favourite who romped home handsomely with a 72% share on a 60% turnout. Other than promising change and wider internal democracy, she did not offer much new on the policy front. Nonetheless, recognition is due for chutzpah and courage to stand for the leadership of a party that just suffered a worse drubbing on its supposed home turf than even its more fanatical opponents had projected.
Though Scottish Labour is more resilient than recent voting results might indicate, it still takes guts to take the helm when even sympathetic observers see only rough waters ahead.
Although young by any party leadership standards, she has already demonstrated nous in awareness of the scale of the task the job entails and surprised many who had not seen her in action by handling the stand-in-leader position at FMQs with a competence that ranked well, especially when compared with her predecessors: none made any lasting impact. Kezia may be different.
It may seem strange for an unabashedly independence-supporting commentary such as this to speak in positive terms of the one person in any position to rally the somewhat disorganised forces of unionism, but these are strange times. The supposed defeat of the cause of independence a year ago has had exactly the opposite effect. It appears to have opened up the ranks of the SNP to a flood of new recruits, politicised a whole slew of people previously deaf to politics and damaged, possibly irreparably, the hegemony that Labour once enjoyed in most Scottish cities and large towns.
But—referendum aside—this wave of support and positive results for the SNP brings with its power a minefield of dangers; disconnection from its roots; beginnings of hubris; over-tight restriction on policy speculation and debate. Should any of these come to pass, Kezia may find a fair wind with which her predecessors were not blessed.
So far, she has conducted herself well—having a good campaign, being magnanimous in victory and making credible noises about bringing change to an ossified party—a party still full of jobsworths, policy stuck in ‘aye been’ dogma and ranks depleted as those with vision or talent or principle who moved on. For all the media slurs about unelectability, Jeremy Corbin has galvanised the UK party talking tough on clear ideas. Can Kezia do the same?
She has some tough alligators to whack on the snout if she is to clear this particular swamp. Her team reckon up to half of the party’s 39 MSPs are of poor quality and need to be culled at a time when every one of 14 remaining first-past-the-post seats is under threat. One proposal is to re-interview potential List candidates, including incumbents, with a view to weeding out the deadwood. Kezia is quoted as saying:
“I’ve been very clear I want to bring in new talent, new people to the Scottish party, and I’ll be encouraging them to stand next year. I will say more about that in the weeks ahead.”
All very laudable. But in the Miners’ Welfare and CLP rooms of darkest Lanarkshire they have a way of doing things that has changed little down the aeons that involves closed door debate, blind loyalty and Buggins’ Turn. It will take serious political dynamite, together with acceptance that things need to change, to make real progress.
And for someone who wants change, she is not off to a flying start with her cabinet reshuffle. Hugh Henry has been singularly ineffectual in neutralising the Kenny MacAskill bulldozer taken to Procurator Fiscals, the Scottish Court Service, the Scottish Fire Service and local policing, and is stepping down. But the Old Guard of Baillie, Boyack, Gray, Macintosh, Marra etc all stay in post after years marked by endless anti-SNP moaning and little by way of either innovation or inspiration.
It is significant that her ‘biggest’ change has been to appoint Marra as spokesperson for Equalities—something symbolically significant to politicians and their SPADs but without much traction in Carntyne or Lochee. Nothing against Marra who, like Dugdale, carries no baggage from the do-nothing days of 1999-2007 and also shows promise.
But though she may not be able to squeeze ideas—the lifeblood of politics—from these stones with which she has burdened herself, perhaps her promise to infuse the party with new, younger candidates to be elected next May will allow her to cobble together a more dynamic crew further down the line. Meantime, this stinks of don’t-rock-the-boat ossification that has characterised CLPs right across the Central Belt since Tories became irrelevant in the seventies and Labour lapsed into their cosy fantasy that they alone had a right to represent Scotland, especially working-class Scotland.
So, if Kezia is to gee it all up, she must do better then this. Brutal as it may be, she faces the same dilemma that faced the much shrewder, more experienced Jim Murphy: a party grown smug and losing touch with once-loyal base voters. Even if next May is not the gubbing of last May, there is still a long, hard road back to challenge the SNP, let alone Westminster and ‘real’ power. Once turned, voters are not inclined to admit they were wrong and meekly return to the fold; defeat costs leaders their jobs.
Because it would be a shame to lose her. Indeed, Scottish Labour needs more like her as it is not (yet?) blessed with a wealth of upcoming talent. Indeed Scotland needs more like her because the SNP running rings round the opposition (as they are doing) does not make for healthy politics in the long term. And it would be unfortunate if someone showing her signs of future leadership should be thrown into this unforgiving maelstrom of politics a decade early—before she could develop the nous to survive, and maybe even harness, it.