When all else fails, I suppose, you can just plead for mercy. That appears to be the message emanating from the Scottish Labour party’s conference in Perth this weekend. The theme, Kezia Dugdale says, is “Take a fresh look” at Labour.
The thing is, you see, that “Take a fresh look” has been the unofficial theme of every meeting of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party since, oh, at least 1997. When you are reduced to pinching lines from the Scottish Tories you are probably in a position similar to the lost traveller seeking directions to Limerick who was told “Well, I wouldn’t start from here”.
Here is where Labour are however and here is nowhere good. Labour were gubbed in Scotland in 2011 and then hammered again this year. No-one expects anything other than another thumping at next year’s Holyrood elections either. Kezia Dugdale has the worst job in British politics.
How bad might it get? Well, there are people within Labour who worry that the party might come third in next May’s elections. If this still seems rather unlikely it is no longer utterly impossible. YouGov’s most recent poll reported that Labour has lost so much middle-class support that it now trails the Tories as well as the SNP amongst ABC1 voters. Across most of eastern Scotland, too, the erstwhile people’s party is now in third place.
Meanwhile, again according to YouGov, just 22 percent of C2DE voters currently intend to vote Labour next May.
Labour are trapped. They cannot Out-Nat the Nats and they cannot Out-Unionist the Tories. So what can they do? Where does Labour find its voice? And if it can find its voice what will it actually say?
One thing was made clear in Perth today: Jeremy Corbyn is not the answer. But then you knew that already. His speech was, er, remarkable. It was a speech aimed at – and let’s be generous here – 15 percent of voters. Those voters who think a Spartist shouting “SOCIALISM” is the winning response to a Natjob crying “FREEDOM”.
Or, as Corbyn put it, according to the version of his speech distributed to journalists this afternoon, “Friends, if you want socialist change, if you want a left wing alternative, you have to vote for it.”
The trouble is that a) this is exactly the sort of thing Tommy Sheridan has been saying for 20 years and b) the people don’t actually want ‘socialist change’. Apart from that, it’s a great line.
And then there is this other problem: most of the people who agree with Jeremy Corbyn’s views voted for independence last September and then voted – if they voted at all – for the SNP in May. They did not necessarily vote for the SNP because they believe Nicola Sturgeon is a socialist; they voted SNP because they believe independence is the best route to a socialist awakening.
Corbyn appears to think people have deserted the Labour party because it was insufficiently left-wing. Perhaps some poor souls have done so for that reason but rather more have abandoned Labour because Labour long ago ran out of things to say.
Scottish Labour, quite rightly, deplore many aspects of the SNP’s record in government. Awkwardly, however, they don’t actually disagree with many of the SNP policies that have helped shape those outcomes. On education and on health, for instance, to say nothing of policing, the differences between the SNP and Labour are, in terms of philosophy and worldview, vanishingly small. Labour offers an echo from the cheap seats, not a choice.
Corbyn, of course, would like to change that. But his changes, if acted upon, would require Labour to abandon any pretence of speaking to Middle Scotland. Which remains, despite everything, the part of the country and the kinds of voters who actually decide elections. This is a bold strategy.
Kezia Dugdale, for one, knows it is also a doomed strategy. As she has said, Labour’s problems are not simply ones of political positioning. They go deeper than that. They are elemental. They are wrapped up in identity and how you voted in the referendum. That is the great divide and Corbyn has nothing to say about nationalism save the usual stale bromides about ‘solidarity’. Whatever that means these days.
Labour still presumes to speak for Scotland, oblivious to the manner in which that Scotland has disappeared. Most probably for good, too. Now, we are told, the party’s structure will change too. The fabled ‘branch office’ – Johann Lamont’s unpardonable parting injection of venom – will be reorganised and given greater responsibility. This may well make sense but for it to be seen to be something real it also means Dugdale must chart a very different course to that pursued by Corbyn. Because how else can she assert her independence?
A different course, naturally, is much to be welcomed. Nevertheless, this also reveals the extent to which Corbyn appears irredeemably confused. Dugdale can only demonstrate her independence by pointing out that Corbyn is wrong (it helps that he is wrong). Which, viewed from his perspective, seems something close to a problem: because if Corbyn is wrong in Scotland doesn’t there then exist the possibility he might be wrong in England too?
But then Labour, at present, is floundering all over the place. If a camel is a horse designed by a committee Labour is a committee-designed camel pretending to be a wildebeest. No good can come from this.
Above all, there is this: when offered the choice between the red flag and the Saltire the people of Scotland have made it clear they prefer the cross of St Andrew. Corbyn’s speech today didn’t even begin to address that. Instead it simply lived down to expectations.