For Scottish Labour, things can only get worse

At its spring conference, the party is irretrievably divided over Brexit, anti-Semitism and dismal poll ratings.

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The purity of opposition versus the compromises of government. Delegates to Scottish Labour’s spring conference in Dundee arrived yesterday to find a copy of the Morning Star on every seat.

Meanwhile, the SNP government was jubilant after agreeing an expensive pay deal with Scotland’s teachers, which the party hopes will allow it to drive through a programme of school reform.

The cost of doing business with the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), Scotland’s main teaching union, has worked out at £307m, and a rise in teacher pay totalling 10 per cent. “We have stuffed their mouths with gold,” admits one senior SNP source. “But if we can now get our reform agenda through, it will be a price worth paying.”

That reform agenda includes greater freedom for schools and headmasters, government plans for which had been frustrated by conservative teachers’ unions and councils. The SNP also believes that much of the loud opposition to standardised testing of Primary One children will now ease off. “We think a lot of that protest [on testing] was leverage for them to get their pay deal,” said the source. There’s also the small matter of the EIS agreeing to no strike action for the duration of the three-year deal.

The hard yards of governing, the deal-cutting and nose-holding, seemed in stark contrast to the ideological certainty on display in Dundee, where Labour, the party that ran Scotland for decades, gathered as third-placed also-rans.

A request from Eastwood Constituency Labour Party, which contains Scotland’s largest Jewish community, for an emergency debate on anti-Semitism, has been blocked. The motion in question noted that “the party is not taking the issue of anti-Semitism and racism seriously enough”.

In his speech to the conference, Jeremy Corbyn insisted that Labour wanted to talk about “the problems people face in their daily lives.” He added: “The truth about Labour is, we’re not obsessed by constitutional questions, like the others are.”

Even this met with unhappiness. One senior Scottish Labour figure told me: “The truth is that the constitution remains the only game in town. If we have nothing to say on that then we have nothing to say. It’s all a bloody mess. Nobody believes we put Scotland first. We going into the 2021 devolved election in worse shape than we were in 2016.”

Labour moderates believe Scottish leader Richard Leonard has surrendered control of the party to the left-wing leadership at Westminster. They point out that disciplinary matters, such as the action being taken against Labour councillors in Aberdeen, who formed a coalition with Conservatives, and the handling of allegedly anti-Semitic comments by Scottish MP Jim Sheridan, have been left to London. “The rulebook allows us to deal with this stuff in Scotland,” said a source. “Instead, everything is passed to England. How does that look to voters?”

The most controversial figure around the Scottish party is Neil Findlay, an MSP for Lothian, who ran Corbyn’s leadership campaign north of the border in 2015. Findlay is viewed as the bridge between the ruling clique in London and its equivalent in Scotland. But critics believe he is too powerful. “Findlay has taken over large swathes of what we do,” said a source. “Policy basically follows Jeremy’s lead rather than pursuing a distinctive Scottish path. Findlay takes all the decisions but none of the responsibility.”

The Scottish leadership has taken a Corbynite line on Brexit too – Leonard announced recently that, although he would campaign for Remain in the event of a second EU referendum, he would prefer Brexit to take place. This infuriated pro-EU colleagues and party members, who point out that this is at odds with majority public opinion and the views of Labour voters.

Leonard’s predecessor Kezia Dugdale this week wrote a combative email to Leonard after it emerged the party had censored the comments of David Martin MEP and Catherine Stihler, a former MEP. Stihler and Martin have also been denied the opportunity to speak from the main platform.

Dugdale revealed that a comment submitted by Stihler to the conference programme had been changed without her consultation. The section had stated: “Brexit is a tragedy for our country and for the workers and communities that Labour represents. That’s why David and Catherine fully support a People’s Vote with the option to remain in the EU.”

It was replaced with: “The complete mess the Tories have made of Brexit means they are putting Scottish people’s jobs and our industries at risk. Labour will always put them first.”

Scottish Labour is not a happy ship. The leadership is seen as distant, uncommunicative, cliquish and ineffective. Attempts to establish greater autonomy from London have been sent into reverse by Leonard, and policy has shifted far to the left. And none of this has led to any improvement in the party’s polling: a Panelbase survey published yesterday put Scottish Labour on just 19 per cent, behind the SNP on 41 per cent and the Conservatives on 27 per cent.

Things are likely to get worse before, or if, they get better.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).