Jeremy Corbyn offers "the sunshine of socialism" but will Scotland warm to it?

The great challenge facing the Labour leader is the number who now vote on national lines. 

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Jeremy Corbyn has chosen to fight the SNP from the left. His speech to the Scottish Labour conference was replete with references to socialism and avoided almost any mention of last year's independence referendum. Rather than challenging the nationalists on Unionist grounds, Corbyn is framing Labour as Scotland's truly radical party. "Friends, if you want socialist change, if you want a left-wing alternative, you have to vote for it," he said. 

Echoing Keir Hardie, one of his political heroes ("He was also, by the way, the last bearded leader of our party," Corbyn quipped), he declared that what Scotland and the UK needed was "the sunshine of socialism" - "I couldn’t think of a better prescription for what our country needs to break through the narrow, nasty, divisive politics of the Conservatives". But in making this pitch, Corbyn faces several obstacles. The first is the enduring divide within Labour. Since Corbyn's election, the SNP has charged the opposition with being too disunited to represent a credible alternative. In his speech, the Labour leader affirmed his opposition to Trident renewal, a stance which the Scottish party may endorse this weekend. But should the UK party maintain its position of support, or opt for neutrality (through a free vote), the SNP will argue that Corbyn has merely confirmed the need for the independence. 

For an ever-greater number of Scottish voters, it is the national question which transcends all others (and explains the absence of a Scottish poll bounce for Labour). Significantly, it is those on the far-left, Corbyn's natural audience, who were most disappointed by the referendum result. Whatever else the Labour leader can promise them, he cannot promise to change that outcome. It is for this reason that Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale has argued that it was not a dearth of leftism that lost her party the election: "It wasn’t where we sat on the political spectrum that caused this problem. It wasn’t a question of whether you were left or right, but a question of whether you were Yes or No. When 45 per cent of the country vote yes and that coalesces into a vote for one political party, it is very difficult to beat that party." Dugdale's party reforms, which Corbyn praised in his speech, are designed to dispel Scottish Labour's "branch office" image.

But many MPs believe it is only when Labour is capable of beating the Conservatives across the UK that it will recover in Scotland. As long as the SNP is able to charge Labour with being too "divided" and "weak" to win, Corbyn will struggle to revive his party's fortunes. 

George Eaton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.