Protecting the northern flank

The right’s grip on the Scottish Labour Party is starting to slip, writes Paul Demarty. But there is a long way to go

Kezia Dugdale: fame was the spur

After what the pundits like to call a ‘tense campaign’, the leadership of the Scottish Labour Party has been won by Richard Leonard.

Leonard is a long-standing GMB union bureaucrat turned politician, and was the de facto left candidate; his opponent, Anas Sarwar, had recently begun providing vaguely leftwing mood music, given the circumstances, but hardly made a convincing job of it. Sarwar had a long way to row back, and is a multi-millionaire. He cuts a strange figure as a Corbynista. The left - including, for present purposes, unions like Unite - rallied around Leonard, and he won by a comfortable - if not crushing - margin. His majority was much greater among trade unionists than among the general membership: not a surprise in itself, but also an indication that the general membership north of the border is not quite so numerically dominated by the Corbyn levy as in England.

Leonard himself has attempted to place some distance between himself and Corbyn, and is hardly the picture of a starry-eyed fan. We shall yet see what sort of political role he actually plays. For now, however, the psephology speaks for itself - only a tiny minority of MSPs supported him and, assuming he sticks to the guns he is assumed to carry, he will find himself in much the same bizarre situation as Corbyn does in Westminster.

Leonard hopefully puts an end to a long series of wretched rightwing hacks occupying the Scottish Labour leadership - a dynasty which took a commanding and apparently unassailable lead for Labour north of the border and pissed it away. Numerous indices might be cited in evidence of this, but the Scots apparat’s great achievement is without doubt the reduction of Labour’s Caledonian headcount in the Commons from 41 to a nadir of one after the 2015 general election. In spite of this catastrophe, Scottish Labour has held out far more thoroughly against the encroachment of the left into its leadership than its brothers and sisters in England and even Wales managed - the cure was always ‘more of the same’ for these self-immolating scoundrels.

It was, of course, the notorious Jim Murphy who was in the top seat for the 2015 catastrophe - a Blairite fixer whose ill fortune gave us, among other things, the Jim Murphy presiding over disasters blog, in which he was Photoshopped onto the bridge of the Titanic, signing Fernando Torres for Chelsea and so on. Perhaps that is a mite unfair, since without the Labour Party’s obsequious obedience to the Tories during the referendum campaign, loyally repeating every fear-mongering browbeat placed on the autocue in front of them, he surely could not have lost so badly. But naturally he was an enthusiastic participant in that error too, even getting egged for his trouble.

Even before that, the Scottish National Party had made expert use of the Barnett money (extra treasury cash for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) to provide concessions to the wider population, including Labour’s working class base. This left the likes of Murphy’s predecessor, Johann Lamont, frothing about “dependency culture”, thus strengthening the Nats’ claim to represent a leftwing alternative to the Westminster parties. Without the Holyrood majority the SNP gained off the back of that political dynamic, there may not even have been a referendum to serve as the occasion of Scottish Labour’s extraordinary suicide attempt.

Since Murphy’s departure, it has been the job of Kezia Dugdale to steady the ship. On the face of it, they are similar sorts of people. Both got to where they are through the royal road to Blairite hackdom: the student union (Leonard took the more old-fashioned approach of working for a major union for 20 years, although Lamont remains the last of them to have ever had a real job). There is a big difference between Murphy’s generation - who came of age at the tail-end of Kinnock’s purges, and had to develop a killer instinct fast - and hers, who inherited a corpulent and complacent apparatus with scarcely a serious challenger in sight. Murphy was thus better able to fight dirty, defenestrating Lamont after the referendum result with an efficiency that would impress Nick Clegg. Dugdale was basically the last one left in the room - a short-beaked pigeon if ever one flew over George Square.

No sooner was Dugdale in post than the situation in the national Labour Party shifted dramatically, with the election of Corbyn as leader. Dugdale participated in the ham-fisted chicken coup the following year, before getting into a bit of a pickle over whether or not she believed that Corbyn could unite the party. Like many, she will have been waiting patiently for the ‘madness’ to end. Then May finally got round to calling her snap election - and the madness did not end after all. As a result, Dugdale’s position became untenable, and it was unlikely that Corbyn’s office would take a lackadaisical approach to replacing her with someone ‘safe’.

Get her out of here

Her political seriousness may be judged by her subsequent announcement that she would be participating in I’m a celebrity, get me out of here! - the infamous ITV ‘reality’ show in which various Z-listers compete to show the most dignity while eating a dingo’s glans. Even by the show’s forgiving standards - it may as well be called I used to be a celebrity, what do I have to eat to get back in there? - Dugdale is a nonentity.

We cannot imagine what she hopes to gain from it, but she is at risk of losing her political career entirely. Labour’s Holyrood fraction is beginning disciplinary procedures against her, for failing to inform the party and parliament of this engagement. At best, her allies are embarrassed into silence; at worst, they are ex-allies.

She promises to donate her salary for this period to charity - a gesture that tells us first of all that she has it to spare, and second of all that she understands nothing of the moral issues at work. If she considered diverting taxpayers’ money to some favoured brand of do-goodery while messing about on TV rather than the appropriate task of an elected representative, then she should have said so in her election material, and the good people of Lothian could have made their own judgment. By this action, she makes her contempt for her electorate clear - it is not she who serves them, but they who serve her and her vulgar pursuit of fame. We wish her an early exit from the island - and a warm welcome back to Scotland.

With elections in Holyrood not due until 2021, the immediate significance of the vote will be felt first of all elsewhere than in Scotland. Labour’s national executive has recently gained two permanent seats - one each from Wales and Scotland. This was the bright idea of one Ms K Dugdale, and initially meant two further rightwingers to keep the whole thing finely balanced. Now that she has flounced off to the Antipodes, of course, the picture looks different; the NEC is nudged again to the left. There is perhaps now an operative majority on it for the leadership, assuming (as seems likely) the election of the left slate from the constituencies. That makes a lot of difference for those parts of the apparatus that have hitherto acted as factional property of the right - one thinks of the bungling traitors of the compliance unit, and the plainly compromised general secretary, Iain McNicol - who will have, at the very least, to tread more carefully.

In Scotland, meanwhile, things are still pretty grim. There are now seven Labour MPs following the June 2017 general election, as the SNP inevitably lost its near total dominance of the Scottish delegation to the Commons. And in Holyrood Labour is only the third largest party. The raw membership numbers are hardly encouraging either - Labour has some 20,000 members in Scotland, compared to 120,000 for the nationalists. The Corbyn surge has hardly made a dent.

The Labour right has put itself through the utmost exertions to prevent mass initiative getting the upper hand in the party in these tumultuous last two years, and in Scotland it has so far been broadly successful. Before a serious Labour challenge to the SNP’s petty nationalism can be taken seriously, however, that must change - and it is the pro-capitalist, British chauvinist right that presents the major obstacle. If only they were all as useless as Kezia Dugdale.

paul.demarty@weeklyworker.co.uk