Amid the weary laments that politics in the age of Trump and Brexit has become too interesting, it is reassuring to know that torpor still has a place.
Scottish Labour is doing its all to prove it with a seemingly interminable leadership contest of studied banality. Following unexpected gains in the General Election and a polling boost north of the Border, you could be forgiven for expecting a lively and thought-provoking joust between big beasts over the future direction of the party.
Instead, the battle initiated by Kezia Dugdale’s surprise resignation in August has been a flaccid, dispiriting affair, alternately vapid and vicious. Labour will get a new leader out of the exercise but precious little else.
The Labour Party has been busy talking about the Labour Party, its favourite subject, to the Labour Party, its preferred audience. It has been, day for day, plot for plot, briefing for briefing, the most negative, personality-led, philosophically inert contest in memory. There were more robust debates in Wendy Alexander’s election and she stood unopposed.
Not one second of the proceedings has escaped the Holyrood bubble and intruded on the minds of the general public. It may be the first leadership race in which the voters learn the successor to a post they didn’t realise was vacant.
Much of the past two months have been taken up by personal attacks and backroom schemes and neither of the candidates — former deputy leader Anas Sarwar and Central Scotland MSP Richard Leonard — has managed to elevate the campaign above the bitter squabbling of their partisans.
Even Mr Sarwar’s choice of school for his children has been fodder for the dreary cycle of gossip, self-righteousness and confected outrage that has motored the process. Mr Sarwar’s family business was found not to be paying the living wage and eventually he had to divest his shares.
Party members mauled the Glasgow MSP during a live TV debate over his previous criticisms of Jeremy Corbyn and a sudden surge in membership in his local branch prompted a row over rigging. The nadir was ‘P***gate’, which saw one of Richard Leonard’s duller bag-carriers required to resign over a disobliging email about an MSP on Anas Sarwar’s campaign.
Labour’s commitment to brotherhood borrows heavily from Cain and Abel.
Mr Sarwar is instinctively moderate but that is less than worthless in a Labour Party where the centre bends the knee to the far-Left. Where he once called for Jeremy Corbyn to go, he now pledges loyalty to the leader and vows to work with him to get Labour into Number 10. His pitch to the Left-wing membership is that, yes, he has a mind of his own but don’t worry, he won’t use it.
His opponent lacks Mr Sarwar’s name recognition and dynastic pedigree but he has run a professional, effective campaign. Even centrists, such as remain, speak warmly of Mr Leonard. Mercifully, he seems to be untainted by Mr Corbyn’s petty prejudices, which last week saw Labour’s relationship with the Jewish community plummet to new depths when its leader boycotted a dinner to mark 100 years of the Balfour Declaration.
By all accounts, Mr Leonard is personally decent and respectable, his worldview driven by socialism rather than sectarianism.
What has been missing in all this is that small slither of the population known as ‘Scotland’. There has been no attempt to reach out to the voters, a hazard of all leadership elections but one that Labour seems to have positively embraced. Both campaigns have directed their messages exclusively to the membership, which is highly unrepresentative of the country at large, and in so doing have tethered themselves to a series of Left-wing prescriptions.
These are cheered by the card-carriers, who take comfort from reassuring talk of tax and spend, averting the messy business of hard truths and difficult choices.
The two camps are engaged in economic machismo, striving to outdo one another with competitive statism. Mr Sarwar promises a shake-up of tax bands and rates that would see anyone on just over £28,000 a year pay more, with particularly punitive levies for those on £50,000 and £100,000. These are not the super-rich but GPs, experienced headteachers, and small business owners.
Mr Sarwar says the £700m raised from the changes would be invested in ending austerity cuts, funding public services and giving tax breaks to the poorest. Mr Leonard wants two extra tax bands for Scots on £70,000 and £100,000 and a one per cent windfall rate on those in the top ten per cent income bracket, which he expects to generate close to £4bn in revenue.
Labour ought to believe in redistribution but the party is at its best when it pursues gradual reform and takes the aspirational middle with it. Neither candidate has given a thought for hard-working and ambitious people, except as potential cash cows who can be drained to bankroll lofty promises.
It is ten years since Scottish Labour last won the votes of Middle Scotland and, not coincidentally, ten years since they were last in power. Whoever emerges victorious, the party needs to coax, not cajole, middle and high earners but there is no evident appetite for such an approach. It is now Jeremy Corbyn’s party and pragmatism is a dirty word.
Three leaders ago, Johann Lamont quit the top job and complained Scottish Labour had become ‘a branch office of a party based in London’. Now Scottish Labour is shaping up to become the regional franchise of Corbyn Inc, boldly summoning all its autonomy to be on-brand with the UK leader’s strutting socialism.
A Scottish Labour that shifts to the Left and further alienates professionals and business may pick up some votes from the SNP but it will cement the Tories as the voice of fiscal moderation. We will have to wait another two weeks to learn who will lead Labour but the party has confirmed there is only one leader of Scotland’s sensible centre: Ruth Davidson.
The shameful embrace of anti-Semitism by the Left should not blind us to the role of Judeophobia on the hard-Right. Last week Nigel Farage gave voice to ugly canards about Jews, money and influence on his LBC phone-in show. During the broadcast, a listener, ‘Ahmed from Leyton’, called to complain about coverage of Russia’s interference in the US presidential elections, saying the ‘Israeli lobby’ was just as powerful.
Extraordinarily, Mr Farage agreed with the paranoid caller, telling him: ‘Well the Israeli lobby, you know, that’s a reasonable point, Ahmed, because there are about six million Jewish people living in America, so as a percentage it’s quite small, but in terms of influence it’s quite big.’
The ex-Ukip leader continued: ‘In terms of money and influence they are a very powerful lobby’, before adding that ‘the Jewish lobby… has links with the Israeli government.’
Mr Farage has made a career out of ignorance and animus but even for him this was a low, ugly moment.
An SNP councillor has been forced to apologise after claiming Unionists ‘appear to like hitting children’ while celebrity separatist Elaine C Smith says that 20% of No voters ‘would bring back slavery if they could’. Their comments came on the weekend nationalists launched a renewed drive to win over independence opponents. Going well, I see.
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Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org.