The Corbyn effect has not been able to turn around the Labour Party's disastrous general election result in Scotland. Bob Fotheringham outlines the obstacles facing Labour in the Holyrood elections this May.
On the surface Scotland — an almost Tory-free zone since 1997 — should provide fertile ground for a Corbyn-led Labour Party. Opposition to austerity, war, Trident and support for refugees are all now deeply ingrained in the political culture.
During Corbyn’s election campaign thousands turned up to hear him at meetings across Scotland. This seemed to reinvigorate the Labour Party, particularly those members who identify with the left. Corbyn spoke at a rally of almost 2,000 in Glasgow organised by the Scottish TUC in opposition the Tories’ Trade Union Bill.
Nicola Sturgeon from the Scottish National Party (SNP) also addressed the meeting, but there can be no doubt that Corbyn was the main attraction and was warmly applauded by all who attended. Sturgeon opposed the Tories’ Trade Union Bill on the basis that it would worsen relations with trade unions, and that “good relations with the unions would lead to fewer strikes”.
There is no doubt that Corbyn was much more in tune with the audience, which included a range of activists, many of whom would have voted yes to independence.
Perhaps most importantly of all, the Labour Party in Scotland now has a position of opposition to the renewal of Trident. It would be impossible for this to be the case if Corbyn had not been elected leader.
However, there is another side to this story. In terms of new members joining the Labour Party as a consequence of Corbyn’s election to the leadership, Scotland has fared much worse than England. In London for example, Labour Party membership has doubled to 81,000 in six months, while in Scotland it has only added 4,000 members.
Even more worryingly for the Labour Party, with elections to the Scottish Parliament set to take place in May, its electoral support has slipped even further behind the SNP. Opinion polls show SNP support at around 60 percent (rising to over 70 percent for 16 to 30 year olds), with Labour Party support sitting at just above 20 percent.
Some polls even suggest that there has been an increase in support for the Conservative Party in Scotland, putting it within two percentage points of Labour.
This is a ridiculous position for the Labour Party to be in, given the fact that for years it dominated the electoral map of Scotland, and illustrates the existential crisis that Labour encounters in Scotland.
Corbyn has a massive uphill task to turn things around, at least in the foreseeable future. He has three major obstacles.
The first is the Labour Party’s opposition to Scottish independence. The victory for the SNP in the 2015 general election that saw it win 56 out of 59 seats in Scotland can’t be put down to an upsurge of nationalism. It was a consequence of a deep-rooted disillusionment of working class voters with their treatment by the British state and the failure of the Labour Party to provide a radical alternative to the Tories’ austerity. The SNP has skilfully been able to position itself as a left alternative to Labour. There is little sign that the Labour Party in Scotland is about to change its position on independence and this puts it at odds with its potential supporters.
The second problem for Labour is that its leadership in Scotland lacks credibility as a serious alternative to the SNP. Kezia Dugdale has tried to hold the SNP government to account — on the NHS, education and the recent closure of the Forth Road Bridge. Unfortunately for her, the past performance of Labour governments and the role of Labour-controlled councils in implementing Tory cuts make her criticisms of the SNP sound hollow.
Finally, there is the problem of Labour divisions at Westminster. Every time Corbyn is attacked by the right wing of the Labour Party it makes it much harder for his party to present itself as a respectable alternative political force in Scotland. Take the issue of the bombing of Syria. Hilary Benn’s speech supporting this may well have gone down well with the Tories in parliament, but much less so in Scotland where a poll on the eve of the vote showed 72 percent of Scots opposed to air strikes.
The election of Corbyn could have provided the SNP with an opportunity to build an extended and powerful joint opposition to the Tories’ austerity agenda.
The actual record of the SNP has also been far from impressive. Councils in Scotland where they are in power implement cuts to services that are just as vicious as those implemented by their rivals. On the question of refugees, while Scotland has been in the forefront in welcoming the pathetically small number of Syrian refugees that have been allowed into Britain by the Conservative government, the SNP has done little in practical terms to challenge the government’s refusal to allow significant numbers into Britain or Scotland.
There is one final point worth making about the radical left in Scotland, which played a crucial role in mobilising support for a yes vote during the referendum campaign. This took the forms of the Hope Over Fear campaign fronted by Tommy Sheridan and the Radical Independence Campaign. During the Scottish parliament election this May they will be standing against each other as Solidarity and a new political party called RISE (Respect, Independence, Socialism and Environment).
A united left in Scotland could have mounted a convincing challenge during the Scottish election with the potential of wining MSPs. As things stand they will more than likely cancel each other out.
Yet the potential to build a radical alternative to the Tories, the SNP and right-wing Labour still exists in Scotland. In the coming months unity and trust can be built among left-wing activists — including Corbyn supporters in the Labour Party — around opposition to austerity, opposition to the bombing of Syria, in support of refugees and opposition to racism, and much more.