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30 August 2017updated 06 Aug 2021 3:07pm

Kezia Dugdale’s Scottish Labour successor will embrace Corbynism

Even moderates like Anas Sarwar are praising Jeremy Corbyn to the skies. 

By Chris Deerin

If you want to understand where Scottish Labour is heading following the resignation of Kezia Dugdale, have a look at Anas Sarwar’s Facebook page. A video posted last weekend shows Sarwar, a 34-year-old Glasgow MSP and former deputy leader of the party, introducing Jeremy Corbyn at a rally in Glasgow.

“Jeremy is a different kind of politician and a different kind of leader,” enthuses Sarwar. “Where other leaders seek to divide, Jeremy seeks to unite. Where other leaders create fear of difference, Jeremy celebrates difference. Where others promote hate, he talks of love. Where others talk of war, he talks of delivering peace. Where others perpetuate poverty, he wants to deliver prosperity. Where others give injustice, he wants to deliver justice. Where others talk about the status quo, he wants to deliver real, meaningful change for the men, women and children of this great country.”

After an intro like that, it was something of a surprise that Saint Francis of Assisi didn’t glide on to the stage. Corbyn at least had the good grace to look mildly embarrassed. But the point is that Sarwar is likely to be the moderate candidate in the race to succeed Dugdale. If even the moderate is talking like that – whether through principle or for reasons of blatant careerism –  a sharp shift leftwards is coming.

In the end, Dugdale failed to break Scottish Labour’s two-year curse. Since Holyrood was founded in 1999, only Jack McConnell has managed to last longer than that as leader. Ruth Davidson, who hasn’t been around for all that long, is on her fifth Labour opponent. Devolution seems to have ensured that while Labour found an empire, it entirely lost its purpose.

The hunt for a juicy story has led to claims that Dugdale was somehow forced out by the Corbynites. That doesn’t seem to be true. She may have supported Owen Smith’s challenge to Corbyn and spoken disobligingly about the latter at times, but the decision to quit appears to be based largely on personal circumstances. She says the death earlier this year of her friend Gordon Aikman from Motor Neurone Disease has led her to rethink her priorities – she considered resigning after the general election in June. Friends suggest a bigger influence has been her relatively new relationship with Scottish National Party MSP Jenny Gilruth – a “love across the barricades” that in time would have come under strain amid the brutal mud-slinging of Scottish politics. “If you’re in a leadership position politics gets very tense and difficult,” said one ally. “One thing about Kez is that, apart from being dogged and determined, she’s very thoughtful. I suspect she sat down over the summer and thought through the implications.”

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Whatever the truth, the announcement went down well at home – Gilruth tweeted: “Dignified, compassionate & principled. PS ‪@kezdugdale are you now free to wash the dishes?”

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To her credit, Dugdale leaves Labour in a better condition than she might have – though that is in part due to Corbyn’s momentum. The party performed unexpectedly well in June, taking back a handful of seats from the SNP in its central belt heartlands. The Nationalists are struggling to find a convincing tone and position after 10 years in power. With Corbyn nibbling at the SNP from the left, Davidson nudging into the centre, and Brexit putting a spoke in their wheels, Labour can expect to continue its upward trajectory.

The question is, how high can it climb? Dugdale took the party to the left with a strong anti-austerity message that she used to bash both Davidson and Sturgeon. But this was always a matter of practicality – the aim was to win back the base first, then move to the centre where the majority of voters are. If the party is captured by the true-believer hard left, the calculations change.

Few doubt there will be a candidate from that wing. “There’s now an opportunity to put their money where their mouth is and put someone up,” says one unsympathetic MSP. “And they’ve kind of earned the right. But can they find someone credible?”

The name emerging as the Corbynites’ likeliest champion is Richard Leonard, an MSP and well-respected former organiser for the GMB. “He’s something of an unknown quantity, but of all the potential candidates he most has the kind of qualities that a first minister needs,” says one senior party source. “He’s a thoughtful guy, even though he shares the wonky politics of that whole group. In his head, Richard still lives in a working-class Yorkshire mining village where people live happily ever after.”

Alex Rowley, the current deputy leader, who was one of the highest profile in Scottish Labour to credit Corbyn for the election gains, is also expected to stand. A long-time ally of Gordon Brown, it’s thought the former prime minister won’t be able to resist supporting his man. “Rowley will run,” says one insider, “even though he has ideas above his station. And Gordon will be in there, because he likes to have his people in high positions so he can pull strings.” 

“Rowley would be an utter disaster,” reflects one of his fellow MSPs.

Will Scottish Labour decide to go full Corbyn – to test the electoral appeal of that full-strength, old-time religion? The Tories certainly hope so, as this would allow them to pitch directly to moderate, unionist voters alarmed both by the prospect of Scottish independence and raw socialism. On the other hand, says one senior Labour insider, “this is actually a massive opportunity for us. The Nats have a huge strategic problem and a massive talent gap below Nicola – there’s no one else who’s fit for purpose.

“Meanwhile, Ruth is tied to a Westminster party that’s an utter shambles, defined by Theresa May, Boris fucking Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg. As Jack McConnell found in the mid-2000s when he was first minister and New Labour were imploding at Westminster, what goes on down there damages perceptions up here too.”

But, says the source, “you have to win from the centre. That’s where Salmond and Nicola put themselves. It’s where Ruth’s headed. Too far left and you fall out the ring.” Interestingly, a majority of Scottish party members backed Owen Smith over Corbyn.

That leaves Anas Sarwar. His embrace of Corbyn may be a cynical tactic to ingratiate himself with the left and make him the most tolerable option for both sides – but perhaps, given the unsteady state of Scottish politics, the mess the Labour Party is in, and the quality of his rivals, that’ll have to do. They could always give it two years.