What now for Scottish Labour?

A new leader can only start the long recovery process – the party should prepare for a generation ou

Following its disastrous showing at the Holyrood elections earlier this year, the Labour Party in Scotland has set-out plans for a comprehensive overhaul of its internal structures.

With the aim of becoming more responsive to the aspirations of Scottish voters, it will get a new Scotland-wide leader with substantial policy making powers, as well as a new base of operations in Edinburgh. Further, local branches will be made to correspond to the constituency boundaries of the Scottish, rather than the UK, parliament and all devolved issues will be decided exclusively by members and elected representatives north of the border.

The most immediate challenge for the newly reformed Scottish Labour Party is to find a way of halting the SNP's momentum. After winning an unprecedented overall majority in May, the Nationalists have gone from strength to strength. The most recent Ipsos/Mori poll registered support for Alex Salmond's administration at 49 per cent - an astonishing achievement for a party of government during a period austerity. Meanwhile, Salmond himself enjoys a 62 per cent approval rating.

Labour cannot allow the SNP to go into the forthcoming independence referendum - scheduled for the second half of this parliamentary session - riding high on a wave of popular enthusiasm. But what can it do to put the brakes on the separatist juggernaut?

The main element in any Labour revival must be genuinely effective leadership. So far just three candidates - Johann Lamont MSP, Ken Macintosh MSP and Tom Harris MP - have put their names forward as potential replacements for Iain Gray. (Attempts to persuade more established figures like Jim Murphy, Douglas Alexander and even Alistair Darling to stand have been unsuccessful.)

As Gray's deputy over the last four years Lamont has direct experience of leading the MSP group in battle against the SNP government and enjoys a fearsome reputation as a tough political street fighter. But in her tribalism, her intellectual conservatism and her almost obsessive hatred of nationalism, she represents everything that burdens Labour in its efforts to reconnect with an increasingly assertive Scottish electorate and couldn't possibly lead the party back to power.

Macintosh's problem is the reverse: he is seen as being too low-key and conciliatory. An MSP since the creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, he has never developed much of a public profile. It is easy to imagine him being casually brushed aside - or worse - by Salmond at First Minister's Questions every Thursday.

That leaves Tom Harris, MP for Glasgow South, as the only credible challenger. Harris is almost alone among the party's big hitters in having grasped the scale of the crisis which Scottish Labour faces. In a recent outspoken attack on Labour's "arrogance and complacency", he warned that the UK was "on the brink of the greatest upheaval in its history" and said it was time to recognise that "it's Scotland first, the Union second, the Labour Party third".

Yet Harris, too, is fatally compromised. His long association with Blairism will not sit well with Scotland's social democratic majority, nor with an activist base still struggling to come to terms with the party's right-ward drift over the last two decades. Indeed, it was Labour's advocacy of university tuition fees, the privatisation of the NHS and PFI which allowed the SNP to claim the left-of-centre ground in Scottish politics - a key factor in its success.

But the fact is, even if another, better suited candidate does emerge, Labour in Scotland cannot seriously expect to win the next Scottish election. First of all, barring an extraordinary collapse in support, the SNP, with nearly twice as many MSPs as Labour, will almost certainly remain the largest party at Holyrood in 2016. This means it will retain the 'moral right' to form a third term government. Secondly, the process of re-building a party after a shattering defeat normally takes two elections. Thirdly, there is no guarantee that the proposed reforms will translate into electoral success.

The next leader of the Scottish Labour Party will therefore be forced into a care-taker role, guiding the party through a difficult period of transition. The most he or she can reasonably hope to do is make sure the SNP loses the independence referendum and drops a dozen or so MSPs. Perhaps this explains the reluctance of Jim Murphy and Douglas Alexander to give up the relative comfort of the Westminster bubble for the harsher winds of the Scottish political landscape.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

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Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn sitting down with President Bernie Sanders no longer sounds so outlandish

Both men have a certain authenticity and unpretentiousness that their rivals lack.

Unlike many of us, Bernie Sanders never doubted Jeremy Corbyn. The week before the general election, the independent US senator from Vermont was addressing a crowd of progressive voters in Brighton during a whirlwind tour of the UK. An audience member asked him what advice he might have for the leader of the Labour Party. “I don’t think Jeremy Corbyn needs my advice,” Sanders replied. “I think he’s doing quite well.”

The week after the election, a delighted Sanders invoked Corbyn’s election performance in a New York Times op-ed. “The British elections should be a lesson for the Democratic Party,” he wrote, urging the Democrats to stop holding on to an “overly cautious, centrist ideology” and explaining how “momentum shifted to Labour after it released a very progressive manifesto that generated much enthusiasm among young people and workers”.

Sanders and his growing movement in the United States offered more than mere rhetorical support for Corbyn.

With the help of former members of the senator’s presidential campaign team, Momentum – the grass-roots organisation set up to support and defend Corbyn in 2015 – ran 33 training sessions across the UK, preparing thousands of Labour activists.

Momentum’s national organiser Emma Rees says that the Sanders people made a “significant contribution” to the Labour campaign with their emphasis “on having empathetic conversations that focused on the issues the voter cared about, and actually trying to persuade voters on the doorstep rather than just collecting data”.

“In the final stage, I recruited a bunch of former Bernie volunteers from around [the United States] to . . . help get out a last [get out the vote] texting assignment,” recalls Claire Sandberg, who was the digital organising director for Sanders and spent the 2017 election campaign working with Momentum in the UK. “It was an amazing thing to see them volunteering . . . while we were all asleep the night before election day.”

Is it really surprising that Sanders supporters, thousands of miles away, would want to volunteer for Corbyn? Both men are mavericks; both have a certain authenticity and unpretentiousness that their rivals lack; both, in the words of Emma Rees, “have inspired tens of thousands of people to participate in the political process and to realise their collective power” and they want “to transform society in the interests of ordinary people”. Perhaps above all else, both men have proved that left populism can win millions of votes.

According to the latest polls, if another election were held in the UK tomorrow, Corbyn would be the winner. Sanders, however, has a much higher mountain to climb in the US and faces at least three obstacles that the “British Bernie” does not.

First, Sanders leads a growing grass-roots movement but does not have the support of a party machine and infrastructure.

Corbyn may have been a backbench rebel who voted against his party whip more than 500 times before becoming party leader, but he is a lifelong Labour member.

Sanders, on the other hand, is the longest-serving independent politician in US congressional history. He declared himself a Democrat in 2015 only in order to seek the party’s presidential nomination and promptly declared himself an independent again after he was defeated by Hillary Clinton last summer.

Such behaviour has allowed establishment Democrats to portray him (wrongly) as an opportunist, an interloper who is using the Democratic Party as a vehicle for his own benefit in a country where third-party candidacies cannot succeed.

Second, Sanders has to confront an even more hostile and sceptical media than Corbyn must. Under US law, Fox News is under no obligation to be “fair and balanced” towards Sanders – nor is CNN, for that matter.

Thanks to the UK rules on broadcaster impartiality, however, Corbyn was “able to speak directly to the voters who still get their news from TV instead of the internet”, Sandberg notes. “In contrast, Bernie was completely and totally shut out by broadcast media in the US, which considered his campaign totally irrelevant.”

Third, Sanders failed to connect with minority groups, and especially with African Americans, whereas black and Asian British voters flocked to Corbyn – a veteran campaigner for the anti-racism movement.

Two out of every three ethnic-minority voters voted Labour on 8 June. “Bernie would’ve won [the Democratic nomination] if he’d had a message that resonated with 50 per cent – just 50 per cent – of black voters, because Hillary got upwards of 90 per cent in many states,” the activist and journalist Naomi Klein, who is a supporter of both Sanders and Corbyn, told me in a recent interview for my al-Jazeera English show, UpFront, which will air later this month.

Nevertheless, she is confident that Sanders can learn lessons from his own campaign for the 2016 Democratic nomination, and “build a winning coalition” next time which ties together the narratives of financial, racial and gender inequality.

Just as it was a mistake to write off Jeremy Corbyn, it would be wrong to dismiss Bernie Sanders.

Despite media bias, and even though he doesn’t have a party machine behind him, Sanders today is still the most popular politician in the United States. And so this may be only the beginning of a new, transatlantic partnership between the two self-declared socialists. Those of us on the left who grew up watching Reagan and Thatcher, then Clinton and Blair, then Bush and Blair, may wish to pinch ourselves to check we’re not dreaming.

“I think by 2021,” Sandberg says, “we may see Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn sitting down with President Bernie Sanders.”

Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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