The Corbyn bounce falls flat in Scotland
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
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waves to the crowd after delivering his speech at the Labour Party annual conference in Brighton