What the hell is happening to the Scottish Labour Party? Its crisis – this abject and sustained collapse into near-obsolescence – is real and deep and profound and not obviously fixable. The party at Holyrood is in the hands of third-raters, a sort of soupy Corbynite claque lacking even the nous and brains of a John McDonnell or a Seumas Milne. It is treated with contempt by the mothership at Westminster, and is undergoing a talent drain of significant proportions. The future looks bleak indeed.
The ongoing scrap over the party’s position on a second independence referendum has only further exposed the lack of authority of its Scottish leaders. First, shadow chancellor McDonnell used an appearance at the Edinburgh Fringe to cause some shock and not a little outrage when he said the “English parliament” would not stand in the way of another indyref if Holyrood demanded one: “We would not block something like that. We would let the Scottish people decide. That’s democracy. There are other views within the party but that’s our view.”
The angry response from within the Scottish party, which has lost a sizeable chunk of its traditional vote to the SNP over the past decade, was not faked. Caught in a squeeze between the pro-separation Nationalists and the stridently pro-Union Conservatives, confusion over Labour’s position on the most controversial and hotly-debated issue in Scottish politics is seismically unhelpful. Having its position dictated by London is not a good look, either.
Richard Leonard, the Scottish leader, may have sought to correct McDonnell by restating his opposition to a second vote, but he quickly had the rug pulled from under him by Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn publicly backed McDonnell’s position and said that while he was “not in favour” of Scottish independence, “it’s not up to parliament to block it”.
The calculation among Corbyn et al is as transparent as it is cynical. Whatever Labour’s route to power, it is likely to need the votes of the SNP to get there. Nicola Sturgeon has made positive noises about backing a Corbyn premiership, but her price is likely to be another independence referendum. The Labour leadership are clearly happy to sell their Scottish colleagues down the river if it gets them into No 10. The further suspicion is that they anyway hold no great attachment to the integrity of the UK, regarding its make-up as an imperial hangover. A united Ireland and an independent Scotland would mean an end to all that.
For some of us this merely confirms their gross unfitness for office, and while one can understand the SNP’s position it would be hard to forgive Sturgeon, who has led a relatively moderate, centrist regime in Edinburgh, if she put the hard left into power at Westminster.
But ultimately this is Labour’s mess, and Labour’s doing. A former Blair-era cabinet minister had his head in his hands recently when discussing the state of the Scottish party. “I just don’t know how we come back from this,” he said. Leonard has been a catastrophically poor choice of leader, nervy, pink-faced, lacking charisma, with no pitch to mainstream Scotland, unable to land a punch on either of the formidable women leading his main rivals. Even then, it’s not clear who could replace him and make much of a difference. Talent has scarpered from both the candidates’ list and even the parliamentary party – Kezia Dugdale, Leonard’s well-liked predecessor, who is still only 37, has quit Holyrood to run the John Smith Centre for Public Service at Glasgow University. If you’re a bright, young thing looking to carve out a career for yourself in Scottish politics you’d be advised to give Labour a miss.
As the next Holyrood election draws near, Labour’s only hope for a decent result in 2021 seems to rest on the possibility of the two main parties blowing themselves up. Early next year, Sturgeon must endure the trial of her mentor Alex Salmond, who faces charges of sexual misconduct, including attempted rape. Holyrood is reverberating to rumours that the First Minister will end up collateral damage in the case. “She may well be gone by March”, one senior SNP MSP told me. Meanwhile, Ruth Davidson’s Conservatives have lost much of their momentum due to Brexit and the arrival of Boris Johnson in Downing Street, neither of which are popular in Scotland. Where Corbyn seems to regard Leonard as an irrelevance, Johnson has shown similar instincts so far when it comes to Davidson.
It’s quite something that the People’s Party should now be reliant on the failure of its opponents, and that the party of Keir Hardie, Tom Johnston, John Smith and Gordon Brown, among others, should be almost entirely without significant Scottish talent either in Holyrood or Westminster.
In the end, it is the collapse of Scottish Labour that may well prove to be the midwife of independence. But it’s hard to believe Jeremy Corbyn cares all that much.