What does Corbyn mean for Scottish Labour?

'Jeremy Corbyn' / DonkeyHotey
'Jeremy Corbyn' / DonkeyHotey

After the dust has settled, and the euphoria dies away, Jeremy Corbyn faces the herculean task of trying to unite a Labour Party of which most didn’t actually vote for him as their leader.

The finer points of ‘Corbynism’ are still to be defined but with many media outlets and elected officials attempt to portray Corbyn’s policy outlook as an ancient relic of a Labour Party which supposedly sacrificed electability for the sake of principles. Such is the the true legacy of ‘New Labour’: the creation of a mindset that says perpetual retinkering of the same formula will eventually create something to dominate the political agenda.

That Corbyn doesn’t share policy hegemony with his Shadow Cabinet is surely a good thing. The Cabinet is collective government, not an institutional nod of the head to democracy. They should have differing opinions, they should challenge but eventually go along with their leader. If not, they resign, or they are sacked: such is the prerogative of the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister.

With great irony it’s Margaret Thatcher who has the most in common with Corbyn as Opposition leader. She faced an oddly similar dilemma when ascending to the role. The former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoukfakis argues that both are uniquely dominated by their convictions, but moreover, the leaders were initially reliant on Shadow Cabinets that didn’t share the same unified policy goals as their new leader. Tom Watson displays this, showing clearly the differences between himself and his leader. In total, this may only be the tip of the iceberg. We’ve seen a swathe of internal resignations, dissenting voices and disagreements with the approach Corbyn is embarking upon, all of which come from those who appear to be loyal to the ‘New Labour’ brand.

This centrist, catch all ideology, designed to appeal to the broadest spectrum of voters at the expense of credible, principled policy stances, is the complete essence of New Labour. The internal loyalty of Corbyn’s parliamentary colleagues to this rejected approach to politics is the first hurdle that he must overcome. As Hugh Andrew argues, Corbyn offers a refreshing and humanistic approach to an otherwise clichéd and turgid political landscape. The promise of a ‘new politics’, one which is more open, democratic, inclusive and resonating is the kindling that lit the fire of the public imagination. Packed meetings, community events and hustings ensured that the Corbyn fire raged all the way to 60% of the vote. A vote from which, rather ironically, this author was “purged” from voting within.

The upper echelons of the ‘New Labour’ structures gravely miscalculated the viability of Corbyn. Despite the repeated call for unity and solidarity behind their new leader, there will inevitably be backbench suspicion and rebellion. The inner-party squabbling; the blind adherence to a failed and inherently unequal neo-liberal system; the hierarchical party structures who still long for the Blairite 1997 ‘landslide‘ approach, will be the ultimate downfall to this new era of Labour politics and will ensure it is business as usual within the British political context. Keeping party discipline and unification will be the ultimate and unenviable litmus test of Corbyn’s mettle in the early days of his leadership and beyond.

In Scotland the challenge to Corbyn is even more acute. Post-September 2014, the Scottish political context has changed, perhaps irreversibly so. The continued gains by the ‘Yes’ vote show that the independence argument did not subside on the morn of September 19th. The gargantuan momentum created by the Scottish Referendum diversified the political debate in Scotland, ultimately leading to alliances and unification, which would not have been possible without the democratic, open space of the referendum. The creation of R.I.S.E (Respect, Independence, Socialism, Environmentalism), a Scottish electoral alliance between the Scottish Left Project and the SSP; the predicted gains of the Green Party in the 2016 Holyrood elections and the apparent unassailable SNP dominance, are all by-products of this 2014 Autumnal exercise of Scottish democracy. All of which are uncharted territory for any new political leader, irrespective of party allegiance.

Corbyn has to swim against the rising tide of the Scottish electorate who gave an overwhelming mandate to the ‘SNP 56’. However, this is where the politics of the man can resonate, particularly in Scotland. The anti-war, anti-trident, and general anti-establishment ethos of Corbyn can give him resonance with the electorate, far eclipsing the structures of the Scottish Labour party. In one respect, Corbyn ticks the majority of popular policy boxes in Scotland; public ownership of industry and assets; anti-austerity principles and high taxation of the most resourceful. It’s just to the detriment of his movement that these principles may be delivered through an incredulous and broken Scottish Labour party, whose true commitment to ‘Corbynism’ policies can be described as sketchy, at best. Put simply, having Corbyn attached to the downtrodden brand of Scottish Labour handicaps himself. McCluskey argues that Corbyn principles remain the best, if not the only approach for Scottish Labour to rebuild their dwindling support. It remains to be seen whether Scottish Labour will embrace the ‘new politics’ of ‘Corbynism’ or if they will they stick to their recipe for electoral disaster, leading to a third election defeat in a row. As predicted, it may remain business as usual for the Scottish Labour party, after the Holyrood elections next year.

It’s ultimately no surprise, therefore, that Nicola Sturgeon has questioned that viability of a Corbyn victory in 2020, reigniting the 2015 SNP Manifesto claim that only SNP support can protect Scotland from Tory cuts and austerity. This is not without an element of credence. A disjointed and fractious Labour party under Corbyn’s leadership can only strengthen the already vice-like grip the SNP has over the Scottish electorate. Speculation is gathering on whether a timescale will be introduced for an IndyRef2, with Sturgeon arguing that ‘people power’ will be the ultimate factor on not if, but when another referendum will take place. As Shafi correctly postulates, herein lies a dichotomy within ‘Corbynism’ in regards to the Scottish context. If Jeremy Corbyn looks to bring forward the ‘new politics’ of 21st Century Britain, then his entrenchment within British Unionism and the commitment to reject a further Scottish referendum – despite the popular will of the Scottish people – is at odds with the democratic and inclusive type of politics he wishes to engineer. It is reminiscent of the business as usual; anti-democratic, two-party Westminster state that has become lamented in Scotland.

If Jeremy fails to disquiet the expected internal party rumblings of his own party, the credibility of his potential prime-ministerial ability would be called into serious question; latterly raising even more questions and uncertainty surrounding the constitutional future of Scotland.



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Sean Mclaughlan 4 Articles
Sean is an M.A (Hons) Politics graduate from the University of Glasgow and currently serves as a delegate to the STUC Youth Committee and as Chair of Unite the Union's Scottish Youth Committee . His interests include British and Scottish politics/social affairs.

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