“With the lonely exception of Alistair Darling. . .the Scottish Labour Party often seems lost.” Photo: Getty
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In Scotland, Labour flounders as the centre right rises

In a damaging move for its future prospects in Scotland, Labour has vacated the main battleground from which it should have been able to rebuild support: devolution.

The phrase “The Scottish Tories are having a good campaign” was one that could not have been written – other than in jest – for two decades. The party had been in the doldrums in Scotland since it was wiped out in the Blair tidal wave of 1997: irrelevant, ignored, unloved. But no more. In the campaign to save the Union, the Conservatives are on the right side of the argument. They are confident and comfortable in their unionism and have had important and distinctive things to say. In Ruth Davidson, they have a young, dynamic leader who is quietly building a powerful team around her, attracting new people into the party.

At the same time, under the intense scrutiny that has accompanied the coming referendum, we are learning more about what Scots really think. It turns out that the country is far from a repressed social democracy held back by the English yoke, as imagined by Caledonia’s dreamers, and that Scottish so ial attitudes are not so different from those south of the border. One poll in May found that over 68 per cent of Scots favour stricter controls on immigration, that 49 per cent favour leaving
the EU or are “neutral” about doing so and that 62 per cent support making benefits available only to those who have lived in Scotland for more than five years.

Perhaps we should not have been surprised by the election of Scotland’s first Ukip MEP, David Coburn, in the European elections in May. With polling evidence such as this, there is no reason to think that parties of the centre right could not thrive in Scotland.

By contrast – with the lonely exception of Alistair Darling, who has exuded a calm authority even through the rockiest moments of the campaign – the Scottish Labour Party often seems lost. It is in denial about the scale of its defeat to the Scottish National Party in the 2011 Scottish election and in torment about how or, in some quarters, even whether to fight for a No vote in September’s referendum. This was exemplified by Margaret Curran, the shadow secretary of state for Scotland, who, speaking on the BBC’s Question Time, could offer as a reason for voting No to independence little else than that no one hates the Tories more than she does.

Labour’s job in the independence referendum campaign is to get people voting. That is why the battle bus and soapbox of the party’s East Renfrewshire MP, Jim Murphy, are important and it is why old-school figures such as Frank Roy have been brought in to direct the ground campaign at Better Together HQ. Yet Labour has left it to others to do the thinking as to why we should vote No.

More damaging to its future prospects in Scotland, it has vacated the main battleground from which it should have been able to rebuild support: devolution. Devolution is overwhelmingly popular in Scotland and it was Labour that delivered it. Yet it became clear long before Alex Salmond’s electoral success in 2007 that,
having delivered the Scottish Parliament, Labour had no idea what to do with it. It is as if devolution was entirely instrumental: either to “kill nationalism stone dead”, as George Robertson, the former Nato secretary general, fatuously declared, or to protect Scotland from the worst misdeeds of Tory rule. (“What about the bedroom tax?” the SNP retorts.) Its instrumental worth having crashed, what is devolution for?

This is the question on which Scottish Labour has foundered: it does not know the answer. The Scottish Tories, on the other hand, have finally realised that devolution will not go away. So why not try to make it work? Fortune is smiling on them because how you make devolution work if you are on the centre right aligns perfectly with what Scots say they now want when it comes to “more powers for Holyrood”. With the Scottish Parliament budget approaching £36bn, the share of public expenditure for which it is responsible is on a par with the German Länder. But even after the fiscal provisions of the Scotland Act 2012 come fully into force in 2016, Holyrood will be responsible for raising only a fraction of its budget.

Scots say they want taxation to be controlled by Holyrood as well as by Westminster. The Tories have seen that if you want to move the conversation in Scotland from “What shall we spend it on now?” to “How do we act responsibly?” you need a parliament with its own tax-raising powers. There is little point being a tax-cutting politician in a parliament with no tax powers. Labour gave birth to devolution but the Conservatives are best placed to nurture it to maturity.

Adam Tomkins is the John Millar Professor of Public Law at the University of Glasgow

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the red-top era?

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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.