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I was the Head of Policy and Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland until my retirement in September 2018. I now work on several policy development projects, so all views are very definitely my own. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Jeremy Corbyn's campaign helps, but Scottish Labour's solutions have to be home grown

Congratulations to Kez Dugdale and Alex Rowley on winning the Scottish Labour leadership elections. The challenges haven’t gone away, but this is the right leadership team to start rebuilding Scottish Labour.

The Scottish Labour leadership elections drifted to a conclusion, somewhat under the radar as Corbynmania dominates the political scene. There were no huge ideological differences between the candidates. When even Jim Murphy recognised that Scottish Labour can only win from the left, the scope for a different strategy is limited! Instead members recognised that Kez carried less political baggage and offered a fresh approach. She may be light on political ideology, but she isn’t just a political spin machine either. She has demonstrated that opposition matters, by forcing important issues onto the political agenda that the Scottish Government would rather have buried. Most importantly, I think she will be more of a team leader, building a consensus, rather than relying on a presidential approach

The deputy election was somewhat more ideological with Alex Rowley making an explicitly left pitch, coming out from the shadows of Gordon Brown, where the media still likes to place him. Alex is a thoughtful politician who has shown in debate and his written contributions that he has thought through different approaches.

Of course the hard work starts now. Kez’s election pitch shows that she gets the need to show what Scottish Labour stands for, as I argued in June. This means going big and bold in vision and policy terms, stretching the SNP on the left, without tribalism and knee jerk opposition. There are also some big and difficult organisational issues to be addressed. Local government is the tricky one, as well as the degree of autonomy Scottish Labour wants within the UK Labour Party.

The support Jeremy Corbyn is attracting, in Scotland as well as the rest of the UK, actually helps with this agenda. In policy terms, it creates a degree of space to develop a policy position that works for Scottish Labour without as many tensions with the UK party. Organisationally, Jeremy doesn’t appear to have thought through Scottish Labour, but neither have his opponents. As he demonstrated during the referendum, he takes the position that it’s up to the Scottish Labour to decide these matters – and that’s fine.

The real gain from the Corbyn campaign is the enthusiasm and hope it has generated. From the outset his opponents have looked tired and cautious, saying very little and not even saying that well. Their focus has become the mechanisms of the election – who can beat Jeremy – rather than making the positive pitch members are looking for. All the big beasts have been wheeled out to tell us that this will be a repeat of 1982 and Labour effectively has to accept the right wing media narrative.

In contrast Jeremy talks about trying to change the conversation on issues such as welfare. As he said; “If all that your average voter hears is politicians saying they’re going to be tough on welfare, newspapers calling everyone who legitimately claims benefits a scrounger and programmes like Benefits Street demonising those that claim benefits, is it surprising that that is then reflected in polls?”

Changing the conversation is pretty difficult, but it’s a message that is winning support because simply tacking ever rightwards is unlikely to generate much enthusiasm in a left of centre political party. If we are not about changing society, what is the point of the Labour Party?

That still leaves the constitutional issue. Craig McAngus at the LSE blog shows that that at least half of those who are most left-wing in Scotland are disappointed by the outcome of the referendum. Ideology alone won’t win back these voters, Scottish Labour also has to have an answer on the constitution.

Jeremy was the first of the UK leadership candidates to understand the damage the Better Together campaign did to Scottish Labour. His interview in the Herald today also shows that he understands that support for the union and unionism is not the same thing. The union is only credible if it has a positive political purpose, for socialists it is not an end in itself.

So, Scottish Labour should embrace the energy Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign has generated, and the space it could help create.  However, the solutions to the challenges facing the new leadership team will have to be found here in Scotland.


  1. You are right Dave and we are going to start finding those solutions at our first West Lothian Labour Conference on Saturday in Bathgate. Workshops to sweat the detail and Kezia to give us a boost after a hard days workout ... Watch this space ... Building a Road Map to Recovery ...Bathgate Once More

  2. We need proper jobs with proper guaranteed hours. We need homes for young working people who are stuck in the private rented circus and we need "affordable housing" to buy that is within reach.

  3. The main benefit to Labour by having Corbyn in the campaign is that Labour and Labour principles are on the front pages every day. However there is a big difference between Labour principles of fairness and equal oppprtunity for all and trade union outdated beliefs in renationalisation of railways, electricity generation, and gas supply. We need a Labour Leader who will develop financially viable policies for job creation, a sustsinable NHS snd Education service, affordable housing, and support for small and medium sized businesses by ensuring that the UK remains in Europe. We do not need Corbyn's back of a fag packet ideas.