KEZIA Dugdale has stepped down as Scottish Labour leader and frankly, you have to admire the fact that she lasted so long. She took on an impossible job, a poisoned chalice if you like, and now with a handful of Labour MPs she is leaving under much brighter skies for Labour in Scotland than did her predecessor Jim Murphy.
She did have a great deal of help from the SNP in that respect, however, when they totally misjudged their last General Election campaign.
Now Scottish Labour can realign with Corbyn’s UK Labour party and present a united front, but all of the obvious Corbynite candidates seem to have taken a step backwards. Neil Findlay and Alex Rowley might not be the smoothest of operators but they are cut from the old Labour cloth and many would say that is what is needed right now.
If the inexperienced Richard Leonard hasn’t been lined up for a coronation and doesn’t step forward, then we could end up with Anas Sarwar or even Jackie Baillie, who make Dugdale look positively Corbynite. The fact that some people were even suggesting James Kelly, imagining that the man thrown out of the Parliament for refusing to sit down somehow looks professional enough to be a First Minster in Waiting, raises the possibility that Dugdale might actually have surprised a few within her own party and they are not ready to manage the situation. Time will tell.
The problem is that Scottish politics is far more complicated than it seems at first glance. We have the Tories rising in numbers from a very low base on the promise of stopping a second referendum, one that people are only frightened of because the SNP has failed to make the case for independence.
Labour parroted the Tory mantra of No to a referendum, which led to large numbers of Labour voters voting tactically for the Tories in seats where the Tories were the SNP’s main rivals, thus accidentally stopping Jeremy Corbyn from becoming UK Prime Minster.
Ironically Corbyn probably would have been PM had the SNP held those seats and voted for him. The reason the SNP didn’t hold those seats is because it failed to make the case for independence – note: that will be a recurring theme of this column.
The SNP, having lost most of its seats to the Tories because it looked weak on independence, has responded by moving to the left to be more like Corbyn, which is strange as Corbyn is moving Labour to the left to be more like the SNP. The Tories are laughing as they had the only winning strategy, but their UK leadership’s Keystone Cops-style approach to a hard Brexit will undermine the Union to the extent that another independence referendum before Brexit is inevitable. As a result, we have already hit peak Tory.
Some on the left seem to see Corbyn as an answer that doesn’t require independence, but Labour sold us that pup before. Corbyn might be good for the left in England and Wales but he is no good for Scotland.
He faced the worst PM candidate in history in Theresa May, and the worst campaign ever run by the Tories. It was insulting to voters, to the press and robotically embarrassing and unengaging, and he still didn’t win. If he can’t score into an open goal how will he do when he faces a better Tory team?
Right now Scottish politics is a mess, but with any luck things could start to become clearer. Kezia Dugdale’s hapless No Referendum policy left Labour looking like a Tory fan club on the constitution, but many of Labour’s leading Scottish figures have more radical plans. You may not think they are serious about federalism, but listen to their deputy leader Alex Rowley who says: “The constitution in the UK is broken in my view, and we need to build a case for a federal system of government.”
Richard Leonard (och, you’d probably recognise his face if you saw it) has been writing regularly about “Progressive Federalism” for the Red Paper Collective about which Neil Findlay MSP says: “The Red Paper Collective has for the last five years consistently made the case for progressive federalism. We believe it can secure support across the nations and regions of the UK, building a lasting settlement that retains UK-wide social and economic solidarity whilst at the same time delivering local autonomy and accountability.”
So, assuming we have a Corbynite federalist in charge of Labour, once the Brexit deal becomes clear and we can start to map the economic and political fallout from it, three clear constitutional choices will emerge.
Firstly, stay with the UK and get a Tory Brexit, probably a painful hard Brexit that will hurt Scotland more than the rest of the UK.
Secondly, independence with access to the single market (though not necessarily EU membership), argued by the Greens and the SNP. It will need a renewed economic case based on Brexit damage and a stronger vision as to how to grow the economy and share wealth more fairly – plus the border question will need to be answered.
Or finally a fully, fiscally autonomous federal system as defined by Labour. Failure to present such a radical constitutional alternative by the next Scottish Labour leader will be the end of them. However, it’s not going to be easy because whereas Scotland can decide to stay in the Union and it can decide to become independent, it would take the whole of the UK to vote yes to federalism in a UK-wide referendum and constitutional change doesn’t seem that necessary or desirable to the tens of millions that live in England.
So Labour would have to win a General Election with Corbyn committed to federalism in his manifesto, against a better Tory campaign than last time. On top of that, if Labour promotes federalism they will have to point out all the failures the Union created in the requirement for federalism and if federalism doesn’t win out then that will leave the Union holed below the waterline, with Labour members unable to campaign for it in another independence referendum.
If only we had a party in Scotland that was fully committed to renewing the economic case for independence within the context of Brexit and dedicated to giving people an option to vote for a positive, sustainable, fairer internationalism as an alternative to post-Brexit, old-fashioned British nationalism and arrogance as an economic strategy.