A wake-up call for Scottish Labour

Holyrood may be on summer recess but politics never takes a break.

Fresh polling released on Friday had MSPs leaving the latest John le Carré behind on the sun lounger and heading off in search of a WiFi hotspot. Sunshine is one thing but nothing beats the restorative power of political gossip.

The research from Survation makes for conflicting reading. Ruth Davidson is the most popular politician in Scotland, Theresa May the least, and Nicola Sturgeon the most divisive. The SNP is on course to claw back 14 seats lost to the Tories and Labour at last year’s General Election.

The country looks set to hand the SNP another minority government and put Labour marginally ahead of the Tories in Scottish Parliament seats. The pro-independence bloc — the SNP and the Greens — would still hold an outright majority, guaranteeing another term of separatist shenanigans.

Confused? No wonder. It’s a great big bowl of statistics soup with a hefty caveat on the side: a poll is just a poll and (pray God) there are no more elections for a few years. Bear in mind, too, that Survation questions an online panel, a method that can risk skewing against older voters.

That said, there is one finding that is particularly stark: Scottish Labour, were these results to be replicated in a future UK election, would be left with just one seat — a retread of the cataclysmic 2015 vote. Jeremy Corbyn’s path to Downing Street would be made all the more treacherous.

He bears a great deal of the blame for this, his favourability rating north of the Border lagging at minus-20. However, Corbyn’s fortunes are not helped by the current state of the Scottish Labour Party.

Leader Richard Leonard seems to be a thoroughly decent and straight man, qualities which shouldn’t be taken for granted in politics. His no-nonsense Yorkshire tones have cut through Nicola Sturgeon’s flimsy spin on more than one occasion at First Minister’s Questions.

Leonard speaks about politics as it impacts ordinary people, especially the vulnerable and elderly. One need not share his staunchly Left-wing worldview to find this commendable.

Still, numbers are numbers. Since Leonard took the helm, Labour’s average support across ten polls has been 26 per cent, roughly what they secured in the 2017 election. Barely over a third of voters have any opinion of Leonard and his favourability is minus-17. Of course, these are early days and Leonard still has time to make his mark but he must pick up the pace.

One Scottish pollster tells me: ‘Labour’s polling is sluggish. Eight months into his leadership, most voters still have no view on Richard Leonard. After a rocky start, he has become more confident at First Minister’s Questions and even landed a few blows on Nicola Sturgeon. Unfortunately for him, FMQs is watched almost exclusively by those in the Holyrood bubble.

‘There are any number of explanations for Labour’s polling but it’s noteworthy that the Survation results show a reversal in Jeremy Corbyn’s favourability rating in Scotland. Scottish Labour is much more closely identified with Corbyn now than it was under Kezia Dugdale. That might be off-putting to some middle income, non-ideological voters. There is less of a distinctive Scottish Labour brand for them to buy into and what they see, they’re not convinced by.’

Put simply, Jeremy Corbyn is a problem but only because Scottish Labour allows him to be. This analysis is shared by some within the party. A Labour source says: ‘There’s no interest in having a distinctive Scottish Labour Party anymore, so it all hangs and falls on Corbyn’s popularity in Scotland, and crucially whether people see him as the alternative Prime Minister.’

Richard Leonard needs to be his own man and put some clear red water between Scottish Labour and Corbyn.

Priority number one should be speaking once more like a national party. Labour has to fight the SNP it has, not the SNP it wants. It may be comforting to think that the Nationalists elbowed Labour out of the picture by being more Left-wing. The truth is more prosaic. When Labour dominated Scotland it did so from the moderate centre-Left.

If anything, the SNP outflanked Jack McConnell on the Right by offering a Council Tax freeze and cuts in business rates. The Nationalists had finally learned what Labour figured out years earlier: Scots support socialism everywhere except at the ballot box.

Labour seeks power to change things but it will only get that power if it convinces voters that the changes will benefit them either directly or as part of a trade-off. Labour should reacquaint itself with aspiration and reassure the electorate that it doesn’t resent or long to punish success. Tax and spend is not the answer to every problem.

Next, and this really shouldn’t have to be explained again, saving the Union was a noble achievement and Labour should be proud of it. Had Nicola Sturgeon got her way, the entire nation would have been impoverished and immiserated for the sake of a teary-eyed spasm of superiority. Independence would have made Brexit look like a modest pools win.

Labour was too eager to echo the SNP on the EU Continuity Bill, a decision which had zero impact on Brexit but helped Nicola Sturgeon out of a tight spot. The first rule of opposition: Make life difficult for the government.

The party should not despair. They have some things in their favour. Among the 2017 intake are doughty campaigners Martin Whitfield (East Lothian) and Ged Killen (Rutherglen and Hamilton West). Glasgow North East’s Paul Sweeney, who arrived at Parliament from the Govan shipyard via the 52nd Lowland Volunteers, has ‘rising star’ written all over him. The party also benefits from a Tory government that exists in a permanent state of crisis and an SNP government that is neither willing to nor capable of running public services.

It’s still not enough. Scottish Labour has to be more than the sum of its opponents’ failings. Scots from all walks of life will only be ready to vote Labour again when Labour is ready to earn their votes.

*****

Glasgow Pride was a day of firsts. It was the first time a First Minister led the annual parade. It was also the first time a politician who is cutting all funding to an HIV charity received rapturous applause at an LGBT event.

Nicola Sturgeon deserves credit for attending Pride and delivering a speech of sincere solidarity. It matters to us that we matter to her. Every young person bullied because of who they are will have gone to sleep on Saturday night feeling a little safer.

But warm words turn tepid when your government is slashing support for HIV Scotland, a charity central to the long struggle to turn a death sentence into a survivable condition. HIV Scotland receives a paltry £270,000 from the SNP government but ministers are callously cutting every last penny.

Nicola Sturgeon is welcome at Pride but solidarity is about more than pulling on a T-shirt and posing for selfies. It’s about doing the right thing. Do the right thing, First Minister.

*****

When Donald Trump arrived at Windsor Castle ten minutes late, suit jacket unbuttoned and neglecting to bow, the Queen could’ve been forgiven for thinking she’d been left to babysit an unwanted guest’s ill-groomed bobcat. Her Majesty handled the situation with poise and diplomacy but no one would blame her if, next time, she drew the curtains and pretended she wasn’t in.

Agree? Disagree? Want to have your say? Email scotletters@dailymail.co.uk.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at stephen.daisley@dailymail.co.uk

 

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