Can Dugdale use Corbyn to her advantage?

In some quarters, a great deal has been made of Corbyn depriving the SNP of its main attack line that Labour has abandoned their left-wing principles and their people, ‘Red Tories!”, they shout – but is it that easy for Dugdale? Has Corbyn given Scottish Labour a new opportunity to win ground back from the SNP?

I would argue that whilst there are opportunities, there are many more pitfalls. To make it work, Dugdale will have to negotiate a treacherous path by harnessing Corbyn’s social democratic appeal, whilst keeping her distance from the more controversial elements of his leadership which make him appear unelectable.

Corbyn and the SNP

Writing for Verso last week, Tariq Ali of the New Left Review implied that the SNP were a mould and a trend-setter for the Corbyn effect. He suggested that the SNP’s success north of the Border and the SNP’s approach at Westminster had paved the way for Corbyn – “If Scotland, why not England?”, he said. Whilst rhetorically speaking this may be true, the real similarities are slim in number.

Though the anti-austerity rhetoric and anti-trident policies strike a chord, the SNP have played centre-ground politics for a decade and relied upon the Tories for support in minority Government between 2007 and 2011. Would Corbyn ever receive such support? The SNP at Holyrood and Westminster have not been elected because of their radicalism, but for their relative competence, centrism and Labour’s drifting relevance to speak to modem Scotland, particularly during the referendum. The SNP speaks to everyone and as Stephen Daisley puts it, they are “a party with a centre-left heart and a centre-right head all wrapped up in a flag”.

The SNP is a well-drilled, disciplined and highly-strategic political party – a modern party that closely resembles the slickness of the Blair years. Corbyn is not and would not seek to resemble this. One of his greatest assets is his non-airbrushed, anti-establishment approach.

The SNP (particularly under Swinney) tightened up the policy-making process to make it top heavy and have put disciplinary procedures in place in case their MPs speak publicly against party policy. Corbyn has rebelled against his party for 30 years, intends to democratise the party and push down decision-making to the members and conference, advocating plebiscites for policy-making.

But how does this effect Dugdale? Utilising Corbyn’s rhetoric and approach, Dugdale can expose the SNP as motivated by nationalism, not by socialism which may win back some of those older school supporters who have drifted away. In essence, Dugdale can play the same game as the SNP – talk left-wing, point to Corbyn, but yet keep the focus on the centre-ground. Corbyn’s authenticity may offer Dugdale a tool to expose the SNP’s ‘illiberal’ ways. Not only this, but Corbyn neutralises the SNP claim that they should be the ‘real’ opposition to austerity at Westminster. But great care needs to be taken when it comes to fully embracing Corbyn.

Maintaining the Centre Ground

In addition to a lot of his Cabinet not believing he can be PM, you don’t get the sense whether Corbyn himself sees becoming PM as a priority. It seems rather more important to speak to and raise issues of importance to him and his supporters. Though people have longed called for politicians to speak their mind and it is refreshing and admirable to strive for causes that you believe in rather than tracking public opinion, to tackle them requires election, and their simply isn’t enough left-wing Corbynites for that. In August, (before Corbyn’s popularity took off) Dugdale was clear, stating she would be wasting her time if the leader didn’t look like prime minister material.

Whilst he is advocating a great democratic movement, in which party members will be consulted and policies debated, making party conference more powerful, he is unlikely to withdraw to moderation and the centre ground. When Corbyn speaks of his mandate (which the BBC described as ‘rock-solid’) he refers to supporters who backed his views and ideas. He cannot easily abandon them and his greatest source of legitimacy. This could make the difference between Corbyn and Dugdale more stark and bridging the ideological gap, harder to overcome.

What this shows is Dugdale is more pragmatic and whilst she is also looking to harness the power of membership and reinvigorate the party, she will not abandon the centre ground. She has her own mandate from the party (members and elected representatives) who aren’t so wholly ‘Red’. In her election speech, Dugdale did call out SNP posturing on left-wing tax and welfare policies, stating that she sought to shake-up Scotland’s ‘establishment’ and deliver real “radical policies on redistribution”. But whilst exerting pressure on the SNP to walk-the-walk when it comes to wealth redistribution, she knows that Labour needs to become relevant again and speak to the moderate centre. What that middle Scotland message is, is far from clear.

The Trouble with Maintaining the Centre Ground

Scottish Labour faces the threat of being squeezed between its own UK party machine and the SNP. It faces being forced into a position where it is between an SNP wearing centre-left clothes and a left-wing Corbyn-led party which makes Scottish Labour’s progressive policy look woeful in comparison. At Westminster, the UK Labour party could look more like the SNP Group at Westminster, than Scottish Labour itself. This is where the anti-austerity rhetoric and anti-Trident policy similarities could hurt Scottish Labour. The slick SNP press-machine will make much of this divide and play that script to death for political capital. The Labour story again becomes dominated by division.

Autonomy is key

Whilst Dugdale is likely to choose to fight the SNP on their territory – (the centre ground) – it will need to quash the ‘branch office’ criticism out of existence, with a manifesto and campaign based on ideas and policies clearly emanating and driven from the party in Scotland. Though Scottish Labour is likely to suffer substantially next May, autonomy would at least generate some authenticity and perhaps faith in the party for the future.

The image featured with this post was used as part of an article for the Herald Scotland

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