READERS of this column may have detected a certain sympathy in recent months for the new Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Headlines such as “Corbyn has killed New Labour”, “Corbynmania is transforming British politics” and “JC has made radical policies electable again” may have suggested that I thought this was a positive development.
I’m afraid I may now have to deliver one of those Private Eye-style apologies for having misled readers as to the impact of JC. On his recent showing, he is not the new left messiah, or even a naughty boy. He is beginning to look like a waste of space.
OK, perhaps that is a little strong. Corbyn is dealing with an incipient civil war in the Labour Party, so he is being ultra-cautious on policy and trying to keep his fractious MPs on side. Senior Shadow Cabinet figures, like Angela Eagle and Andy Burnham, are openly flouting his authority on issues like nuclear defence.
However, there is a point beyond which caution becomes capitulation. The Labour leader’s equivocation on policy is now causing serious problems – especially in Scotland. In his showdown with the right, he has blinked so often he can hardly see clearly any more.
We knew that Corbyn had a tin ear for Scottish politics, and doesn’t buy independence. But saying that he was going to seek “dour activities” and waving Irn Bru bottles is sick-bag politics. I suppose we should be grateful that he didn’t don a kilt or a See You Jimmy hat. But he really has to do better than this.
You would hardly know that this was the first week that the SNP has started to attract headlines about cash-for-concerts and the property dealings of its former business spokeswoman, Michelle Thomson. Because somehow, Corbyn managed to make his U-turns the story.
There is now officially “no Labour policy on Trident”. Or rather there is, because the Labour conference actually voted last week for one of those compendious policy documents called Britain In The World, which committed the party to maintaining the “continuous at-sea [nuclear] deterrent”, ie Trident.
Until Corbyn actually changes this, Labour is still pro-nuclear by default. And of course there was no debate on Trident at the Brighton conference because, apparently, certain trades unionists didn’t want one. This did not look good.
The SNP can now say that it is the only major party that stands for eliminating nuclear weapons from Scottish soil. Nicola Sturgeon will also say that the SNP remains the only party committed to social democratic policies like free higher education.
For months, Labour in Scotland has been hammering on the “SNP-aren’t-really-left-wing” theme, abetted by most Scottish press commentators. When “Bennite” Corbyn was elected with his massive mandate, it looked as if Nicola Sturgeon had a fight on her hands; that the SNP might finally be outflanked on the left.
Not a chance. There is scarcely a left-wing policy that Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t “put out for review”. Labour has been attacking the SNP for failing to advocate energy privatisation. Now, Corbyn has apparently dropped it.
Tuition fees? Corbyn had promised to abolish tuition fees and pay for it by increasing national insurance contributions from well-off taxpayers. But according to the Financial Times, this has now gone firmly into the long grass. Out for consultation.
Is Jeremy Corbyn still committed to renationalisation of rail? I genuinely don’t know. He claims the SNP aren’t serious about opposing austerity, and then says he is going to stick to George Osborne’s Fiscal Charter and balanced budgets. Taxation? Who knows?
The SNP’s energy policy, which often sounds as if it has been written by the oil and gas companies, looked to be under challenge as Corbyn promised to nationalise the energy companies. But no – sorry that too has been abandoned, apparently.
Then there were Corbyn’s gaffes on Scotland – and they were gaffes. On the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show he accused the SNP of having been behind the privatisation of Scotrail and Cal-Mac. Rail was of course privatised by the Tories in 1993 and Caledonian MacBrayne is still in state hands. He has yet to accept that this was a misrepresentation.
Even if you accept that the SNP’s commitment to public ownership of utilities is skin-deep, claiming that it actually privatised rail and ferry services was simply bizarre. It is the kind of thing that Labour supporters say on Twitter. But Scottish voters really aren’t stupid.
The 1993 Railways Act outlaws public sector bids for the rail franchise. This is a policy area reserved to Westminster. It’s not clear how the Scottish Government could have prevented Abellio taking over Scotrail last year – at least without declaring UDI.
The Government may not be doing enough to keep ferry services in the public sector, but under EU rules it is bound to put the service out to competitive tender.
Really, all Corbyn needed to do last week was perambulate about Scotland being a nice left-wing uncle and say nice things about Holyrood and devolution.
He should have recognised – as he has in the past – that Scotland has a markedly left-wing political culture. He should have said that this applied now equally to the rest of the UK. That Scotland had paved the way for the Corbyn surge.
He should have said: we will increase top taxes, we will renationalise rail, we will abolish Trident, we will abolish tuition fees, we will freeze energy prices – let the SNP match that if they are so social democratic.
Then he should have agreed to leave policy in Scotland to Kezia Dugdale. Let Labour in Scotland rediscover the radical tradition of the Independent Labour Party, John Wheatley, John Maxton, Keir Hardie etc.
Scotland should have been home ground for a left-winger like Jeremy Corbyn. But lacking the courage of his convictions, he is handing Scotland to the SNP. The image of Labour at war with itself is hugely damaging and contrasts starkly with the SNP’s extraordinary unity behind Nicola Sturgeon.
It is instructive to compare Jeremy Corbyn’s current position with Tony Blair’s when he won his huge mandate from voters in 1997. He was a radical too, way back when, and Blair delivered: windfall tax on the privatised utilities, national minimum wage, Scottish Parliament, Human Rights Act, abolition of assisted places scheme.
OK, he ended up privatising the NHS and embarking on illegal wars. But the point is that he began as a serious leader who advocated radical policies. Thus far, Jeremy Corbyn has been the reverse. Despite his massive mandate from Labour members he has fudged and compromised. He risks being a leader in office but not in power.
The tin hat was placed on Corbyn’s Scottish visit by the anonymous “senior Labour official” who told the Herald that Labour MPs were being told not to mention “Scotland” but to talk instead about cities and localities. The suggestion that it is somehow nationalist to mention the existence of the Scottish nation will appear in every SNP leader’s speech until 2020.
It is with great sadness that I report that, soon, Scottish Labour officials may be advising MPs not to mention the word “Corbyn”.
From Sunday Herald 4/10/15