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12 August 2015

What would a Jeremy Corbyn victory mean for Scottish Labour?

The task faced by the next leader of Scottish Labour is gargantuan - but the triumph of Jeremy Corbyn at Westminster could alter the political calculus. 

By Helen Lewis

While the entire country, and literally every single person in it, has been seized by Corbynmania (subs please check), there has been another, much quieter, Labour leadership race going on.

The Scottish National Party’s thumping general election victory – leaving just one Lib Dem and one Labour MP in Scotland – led to the swift defenestration of Jim Murphy, the Blairite bruiser who returned north after the unhappy end to his spell in Ed Miliband’s shadow cabinet. He was the eighth leader of Scottish Labour since 2000

The race to replace him ends on Saturday, with the announcement of either Kezia Dugdale, his former deputy, or MSP Ken Macintosh as the new leader of Scottish Labour. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that this is the most thankless job currently available in British politics. In Holyrood elections, Labour are still treated like the Establishment – and given the full anti-politics kicking that entails – even though the Scottish National Party have been in power since 2007. The recent Glasgow by-elections were another thumping triumph for the Nats, with big swings to them from Labour on a low turnout. (They held three seats, and took one from the Greens.)

Another bloodbath is expected at next year’s Holyrood elections. A recent poll put SNP support at 62 per cent, even though only between a quarter and a third of those surveyed thought the party was doing well on four key policy areas. That suggests there is something appealing about the SNP which is unrelated to its record in governance . . . hmm, what could that be?

Dugdale, 33, is the clear frontrunner in the contest (some suggest that Macintosh, whose previous leadership campaign was run by Dugdale, stood only to avoid it looking like no one wanted the job). She has done well against Nicola Sturgeon at First Minister’s Questions, but she faces a SNP which completely dominates the political landscape, and is now bolstered by the infrastructure that comes with its 56 Westminster MPs. Where most politicians worry most about newspaper front pages, she will be hammered continuously on social media; I dread to think what her Twitter @-replies look like.

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The next Scottish Labour leader will have to negotiate a difficult path, maintaining a certain distance from their Westminster counterpart, while still making the case for cross-border solidarity. Dugdale has begun this process by saying Labour should have voted against the Welfare Bill, rather than abstained.

I’ll be writing more about Scottish Labour’s challenge soon, but one of the most intriguing questions about its fate could be answered this autumn. Many on the English left point to the success of the SNP as proof that an explicitly anti-austerity party can win big at national elections. Others counter that SNP voters aren’t primarily motivated by socialism; they’re nationalists above all.

But what happens if Jeremy Corbyn wins? Then the SNP would be deprived of its main attack line on Labour – that the party is not sufficiently left-wing. It would face a Labour leader with the same stance against Trident renewal. Corbyn also wants to abolish university tuition fees, one of the most potent symbols of the power of devolved government. Cynics might suggest that Ed Miliband’s 2015 manifesto was to the left of SNP‘s, and it didn’t do him any good in Scotland… but, crucially, he never put out a full-throated socialist message in deference to the qualms of English marginals.

The triumph of Jeremy Corbyn would have many unexpected consequences at Westminster. But there has been relatively little attention paid to how dramatically it could also change the rules of engagement in Scotland. 

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