Two things happened at the Scottish Labour conference this week which bode ill for the “Labour movement”.
First, the Scottish wing voted, by 70 per cent to 30, to oppose the renewal of Britain’s nuclear arsenal, at a stroke re-opening the debate the beleaguered Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) thought they’d avoided when they forestalled debate at the main conference.
Second, Jeremy Corbyn, the UK leader, delivered a speech which set out his thinking on how Labour go about recovering in Scotland – a feat which is both extremely difficult and vitally necessary if Labour is to win a majority in Westminster.
The Scottish Conservatives have been quick to highlight the shortcomings of both developments in punchy, pictorial form. First, Trident:
Opposing the British nuclear deterrent is a policy which plays well to the Scottish left but sends out a terrible signal to swing and persuadable centre right voters.
It isn’t necessarily the detail of the policy – there are probably comparatively few votes that would be absolutely decided by a party’s nuclear stance – so much as that it adds another note to the tune the Tories are weaving about a Labour Party which simply cannot be trusted on national security.
Corbyn, whose own unilateralist views seemed to have been boxed away by the PLP, has openly welcomed this rebellion, and it doubtless strengthens the hand of the hard left group around the Labour leadership.
Diane Abbott, a close Corbyn ally, has already claimed that Scottish Labour are merely pathfinders towards a point by which the entire Labour Party will be united in its opposition to Britain’s nuclear deterrent.
What’s especially ridiculous about this, as some Scottish Labour commentators pointed out, is that Trident is a reserved issue over which Scottish Labour have exactly one MP’s worth of say.
Given the party’s dire position and the looming Holyrood elections next year, such valuable conference attention could perhaps have been used less self-indulgently to debate some area of devolved policy.
There’s also the small point that, for all the talk of “preserving the skills” required by the Faslane base, the truth is that thousands of jobs hinge on a Trident replacement, and those workers are probably not casting their ballots for abolition.
Then there’s Corbyn’s speech:
The best summary of why this speech didn’t work that I’ve seen is Alex Massie’s in the Spectator:
“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”… 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’.”
Essentially, the Labour leadership are projecting onto the Scottish challenge the problems they wish they had – being insufficiently socialist – rather than trying to analyse the real issue: the growth of nationalism.
Labour have been routed in Scotland because the SNP draped themselves in the red flag during the referendum and walked away with huge chunks of Labour’s core vote. Their instinct, as evinced by Corbyn’s speech and the posturing on Trident, is to chase after them.
If you want to know why this is a silly idea, look at those two Tory posters up there, and read this.
In the above-linked article, I set out why it was ridiculous for Labour to keep making these intellectual capitulations to the SNP.
Such an approach works, to a given value of ‘works’, if you believe you have the better machine and more saleable politicians but the other side has the superior ideas. That is not, put mildly, Scottish Labour’s position.
Opposing Trident, tacking left, and going soft on the Union may ‘neutralise’ those areas between Labour and the SNP. But this reduces the scope of the contest between the SNP and Labour to things like leadership, competence, activist base, and brand.
In a week where Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister, was declared the most popular living Scot, that is not winning territory for Scottish Labour.
But that doesn’t mean that these manoeuvres are without benefit. It’s just that the benefits flow not to Labour, but to Ruth Davidson and the Scottish Conservatives.
The Tories are pursuing a very deliberate strategy of moving aggressively to occupy crucial bits of political terrain that Kezia Dugdale’s shell-shocked troops have wandered off of.
To unionist voters – the only voters Labour has left – they contrast the Conservative and Unionist Party’s unshakeable commitment to the Union with Labour’s flip-flopping and indecision. To people concerned about national defence or local jobs, they take a staunchly pro-nuclear line.
The Scottish Conservatives’ ideal strategic position is one where their principle rivals, Labour and the SNP, are fighting it out over the same voters, leaving a substantial chunk of the population with no option but to take a serious look at what the Tories are saying. They’re getting it.
Corbyn and Scottish Labour activists demonstrated a terrible dynamic this week: each offering encouragement and reinforcement to the strategic errors of the other. The Party’s opponents will reap the rewards.