The Cor­byn bounce falls flat in Scot­land

Sunday Herald - - COMMENT - An­gela Hag­gerty

WALK­ING in to lav­ish ap­plause and a stand­ing ova­tion to de­liver his key­note speech at the Labour Party con­fer­ence in Brighton, Jeremy Cor­byn cut a very dif­fer­ent fig­ure from the man who, only months be­fore, had faced hu­mil­i­a­tion at the lo­cal coun­cil elec­tions in May.

The Labour leader has had some­thing of a re­birth af­ter more than four decades in UK pol­i­tics, and one set up by none other than his ri­val, Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May. June’s snap Gen­eral Elec­tion will surely be marked in his­tory as one of the most dis­as­trous political de­ci­sions ever taken by a serv­ing leader, and Cor­byn con­tin­ues to soak up the re­wards.

Watch­ing this new slick, laid-back and confident leader al­most makes it easy to for­get just how em­bat­tled Cor­byn has been through­out his two years at the helm. A wild card in the lead­er­ship con­test af­ter Ed Miliband stood down, his elec­tion was met with in­credulity by most of his col­leagues. They sim­ply did not be­lieve Cor­byn would be able to hold on to the po­si­tion, de­spite political plates shift­ing enor­mously be­neath their feet both in Europe and in the US. What the New Labour Blairites in the party did not un­der­stand was that a mass re­jec­tion of cen­trism was form­ing, and that Cor­byn’s pol­i­tics had a huge op­por­tu­nity to take hold in an aus­ter­ity-rid­den coun­try un­der­go­ing an iden­tity cri­sis.

And so, May’s cat­a­strophic de­ci­sion to call a snap elec­tion in search of an en­dorse­ment of her Brexit ap­proach in­stead cat­a­pulted Cor­byn and his pol­i­tics straight into the spot­light, and an ap­par­ent political makeover for a party dom­i­nated by in-fight­ing came in time for an elec­tion cam­paign in which it pro­jected an air of con­fi­dence and political sense that took many by sur­prise. A lot of work re­mained to be done, and ar­guably it would have been dif­fi­cult to go up against a ro­botic Theresa May and come out of it worse off, but the party has un­ques­tion­ably found a foot­ing that has the Tories wor­ried, big time.

Cor­byn may still lack the charisma of some of his pre­de­ces­sors, but he has made him­self a cred­i­ble prospect to lead the coun­try and his left­ist pol­i­tics have been con­sis­tent through­out his time as an MP, giv­ing him even stronger ap­peal in a political land­scape that vot­ers feel has be­come dom­i­nated by unide­al­is­tic ca­reerists.

He is say­ing a lot of the right things to vot­ers drown­ing un­der the weight of aus­ter­ity, stag­nant wages, in­se­cure work­ing con­di­tions and poor hous­ing prospects. In his speech, he spoke of rent con­trols, re­na­tion­al­i­sa­tion of public util­i­ties, higher taxes for the wealthy – mu­sic to the ears of peo­ple up and down the coun­try des­per­ate for se­cu­rity and an­gry at bear­ing the brunt of a fi­nan­cial crash while the gap be­tween rich and poor wors­ens.

What was miss­ing from the con­fer­ence, how­ever, was a de­bate on Brexit. It’s an is­sue that con­tin­ues to dog Labour due to the con­fus­ing mes­sages em­a­nat­ing from its ranks about just what ex­actly its po­si­tion is. But while many Re­main­ers and mem­bers of the me­dia and political com­men­tariat fix­ate on the de­tail, much of what Cor­byn in­stead fo­cuses on may ac­tu­ally speak straight over the top of them, to the peo­ple who voted for Brexit.

The word “im­mi­gra­tion” has be­come short­hand in many com­mu­ni­ties for frus­tra­tion around poor job and hous­ing prospects, and con­cerns about health and ed­u­ca­tion ser­vices. The right suc­cess­fully scape­goated im­mi­grants for prob­lems caused by poor gov­ern­ing, but it is a mis­take to con­sider Brexit en­tirely an is­sue about racism. Rather, fo­cus­ing now on the is­sues that Brexit vot­ers hope will be solved by leav­ing the EU po­ten­tially po­si­tions Labour as more for­ward-think­ing than a Tory Party dis­tracted by its own in­ter­nal squab­bling and a Brexit ne­go­ti­a­tion process tak­ing place in an al­most im­pos­si­ble time­frame.

But Scot­land is a dif­fer­ent mat­ter. Dur­ing the con­fer­ence, for­mer Scot­tish Labour leader Kezia Dug­dale chose her mo­ment to break ranks and call for a ref­er­en­dum on the terms of Brexit. In the style of one of her pre­de­ces­sors, Jo­hann La­mont, Dug­dale waited un­til she had re­lin­quished power and in­flu­ence to tell ev­ery­one what she re­ally thinks.

De­spite hav­ing pre­vi­ously said that wran­gling within Scot­tish Labour over loy­alty to Cor­byn was not a fac­tor in her res­ig­na­tion, she then said in an in­ter­view dur­ing the con­fer­ence that fail­ing to alert her deputy Alex Row­ley about her plans to step down un­til 15 min­utes be­fore she an­nounced them in­di­cated the kind of “in­ter­nal prob­lems” that ex­isted in the party at the time.

So while Labour at a UK level is rev­el­ling in its new-found pop­u­lar­ity, Scot­tish Labour is still strug­gling to fig­ure out where it is go­ing, or what it’s for.

The two can­di­dates vy­ing to re­place Dug­dale, Richard Leonard and Anas Sar­war, re­jected Dug­dale’s call for a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum dur­ing a hus­tings de­bate at the con­fer­ence. In­stead, both can­di­dates of­fered their pre­ferred vi­sion of a Brexit deal be­ing voted down in order to force an­other Gen­eral Elec­tion, in the hope that Labour will cross the vic­tory line this time.

Sar­war added: “We should not ac­cept Tory Brexit and I would love there to be an elec­tion be­fore the deal is con­cluded while we are still in that tran­si­tion pe­riod, so that we can take over the ne­go­ti­a­tions and make sure we get the Brexit deal that works for work­ing peo­ple and works for the UK and Scot­land.”

This is the Scot­land, of course, which voted to Re­main in the EU by 62 per cent.

A Scot­tish Labour can­di­date more aligned with the UK party po­si­tion on Brexit could be a gift to the SNP, which is fac­ing a pos­si­ble Labour resur­gence north of the Bor­der un­der left­wing Cor­byn, if it can be smart about how it cap­i­talises on it.

Scot­land is still fac­ing dif­fer­ent ques­tions from the rest of the UK, and while Labour will con­sider this con­fer­ence a suc­cess, it failed to find a place for Scot­land’s is­sues within it, and the Scot­tish Labour lead­er­ship can­di­dates have not yet re­ally demon­strated how they will find a win­ning strat­egy in Scot­land that doesn’t rely on Cor­byn­ma­nia.

In­stead, on one is­sue at least, it was Dug­dale who spoke up for a Scot­land that would likely welcome a sec­ond vote on Europe. It’s just a shame that it’s too lit­tle, too late.

Jeremy Cor­byn is say­ing a lot of the right things to vot­ers drown­ing un­der the weight of aus­ter­ity, stag­nant wages, in­se­cure work­ing con­di­tions and poor hous­ing prospects

Pho­to­graph: PA

Labour leader Jeremy Cor­byn waves to the crowd af­ter de­liv­er­ing his speech at the Labour Party an­nual con­fer­ence in Brighton

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