Politics

What the Hell Is Going On with the Scottish Labour Party?

How come they're looking for a new leader again?
August 31, 2017, 10:22am
Dugdale at the Scottish Labour conference in 2015 (Andrew Milligan/PA Wire/PA Images)

Just when it was looking like Labour might make it through a whole summer without a contentious internal election, the party's Scottish leader – Kezia Dugdale – suddenly announced her resignation late on Tuesday night. While it leaves the Scottish wing of Labour looking for its fourth leader since 2014, it has also left everyone – Labour members, commentators and political rivals alike – scrambling to make sense of this seemingly random announcement.
Not that it took long for the takes to come flying in, and they were – of course – blisteringly hot.

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"Hounded out by JC's mob," was how one Labour figure put it to Buzzfeed News, blaming allies of Jeremy Corbyn for the "fucking disaster" that now faced the party. Over at Reaction, Iain Martin frothed that Scotland could be in danger of becoming a "colder version of Venezuela" if the Corbynites managed to gain any more power, while the Telegraph used it as a pretext to reel out their "Does Jeremy Corbyn have a problem with women" video montage. Fringe nationalists, meanwhile, deduced that the announcement's timing was all about "stealing the headlines" from Nicola Sturgeon's unveiling of the new Forth Road Bridge earlier that day.

The reality of Dugdale's decision was far less exciting. The Corbyn-supporting left of the party was as taken aback and gracious as anyone else when the announcement came through on Tuesday, and it seems unlikely that Kez was attaching too much significance to how much coverage she got versus the opening of a bridge.

Her resignation statement was personal rather than spiteful, and she wrote that having recently lost a friend to terminal illness, she had been taught "how precious and short life was and never to waste a moment". The job of leader was one that she had enjoyed "until now."

It is also only a month-and-a-half since Dugdale and her partner – who happens to be an SNP MSP – decided to make their relationship public, which, again, may have been a factor.

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As for Corbyn, he thanked Kezia for helping to revive the party after "one of the most difficult times in the history of the Scottish Labour Party", which sounds like a fairly accurate description of what happened under Jim Murphy, Dugdale's predecessor. Over a brief six month period in charge in 2015, Murphy's achievements included issuing a statement saying that he had never sniffed glue, boasting to the press about how easy it was to outwit the SNP, and then losing all but one of the party's 41 Westminster seats to the party, including his own. But at least he could spell – if not exactly sell – socialism.

In view of the disastrous, if always eventful, reign of Murphy, Dugdale didn't need to do much to seem credible. Never considered as being on the left of the party, and a backer of Owen Smith in last year's UK leadership elections, she had clearly reached an accommodation with Corbyn – and shared platforms with him as recently as a few days ago, when the UK leader toured Scotland.

Now Scottish Labour begin the search for a new leader. At the time of writing, no one has yet declared their intention to stand, although some key figures – like left-wingers Neil Findlay and acting leader Alex Rowley – have ruled themselves out. Anas Sarwar, an ambitious former MP who has sat in the Scottish Parliament since last year, seems likely to stand. Bizarrely, Sarwar is already being touted as a pragmatic quasi-Corbynite, despite having no background – or backing – in the left of the party, which may provide an indication of the ground on which this election will be fought.

Rather than being under the Momentum banner, the left in Scottish Labour are organised in Campaign for Socialism, a largely irrelevant force until recently. Those close to CfS say they are unlikely to let the leadership election pass them by, with one name that repeatedly comes up being Richard Leonard, a former trade union official who became an MSP last year. The only problem is that no one outside of the party has the faintest idea who he is.

The official line from CfS is that the new leader, whoever that is, "must work closely with Jeremy Corbyn" and build upon the gains made in June, when the party gained six seats in Scotland and surged across the UK. In the current climate, it seems hard to believe they will try anything else.

@parcelorogues