Adam O’Sullivan

Naked Politics Blogger 

Labour looks set to reignite its ideological civil war over the next few months as the Scottish Labour Party looks for its sixth leader in as many years. Leadership elections have become all too familiar and each one seems to be framed as another referendum on Jeremy Corbyn’s left-wing platform.

When Kezia Dugdale resigned over the bank holiday weekend the shock of the announcement was more in the timing than the decision itself. Coming on the back of a strengthening of Labour’s position in Scotland and at a point where Labour is attempting to remain on an election footing yet another leadership contest will come as an unwelcome distraction to many when Labour’s has been enjoying a relative harmonious summer.

Dugdale has been a vocal critic of Corbyn’s leadership in the past and endorsed Owen Smith in last summer’s leadership contest, but since Corbyn’s victory whilst there has been little overt undermining of Corbyn, there hasn’t been a full sense of cooperation and unity either.

It is also worth noting that Scottish Labour members also backed Owen Smith, lending some credibility to the argument that Corbyn does not enjoy full support in Scotland, despite their significant recovery there. But like most of the country, the party is still debating whether Labour’s General Election success was because of, or in spite of, Jeremy Corbyn. Dugdale may well have been in step with Labour members in Scotland but she was at odds with the Labour movement as a whole and it was this divide which prevented a homogenised identity for Labour across both electorates.

Corbyn’s willingness to consider a second independence vote marked a split from the official policy of Scottish Labour and disagreements about key Scottish issues meant that Dugdale’s position became increasingly unstable during Corbyn’s leadership. Despite Scotland never having quite bonded with Corbyn, it is felt that after June’s vote Corbyn should be given a clear run at the next election and whilst independence is off the agenda for the time being, it should be presumed that the next leader will be in the position long enough to revisit Scottish Labour’s stance over the coming years.

Dugdale’s successor will also take her seat on Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) and their feelings towards Corbyn’s leadership will have a significant impact on the Labour Party nationally, tipping the finely balanced committee either towards or away from Corbyn’s reform agenda.

No front runner has yet emerged, and with no obvious Corbyn candidate waiting in the wings it seems that rumours of a Corbyn-led putsch are somewhat exaggerated despite some obvious tensions between the two. Dugdale’s departure does spell the end, at least for now, of all the leaders of the major parties in Scotland being female, and if replaced by a male there will be no females holding senior elected positions within the Labour Party. Though a major backward-step for the party as a whole is seems that ideology rather than gender will determine the next leader.

Dugdale’s leadership of Scottish Labour came during one of its toughest periods. Following a collapse in vote-share and a significant loss of key seats in the 2015 General Election, Dugdale has overseen a steady recovery, though it is unclear whether this was merely an extension of the ‘Corbyn effect’. With Scottish Labour’s presence at Westminster increasing from a single MP to seven after June’s election it should certainly be seen as a successful night. But placed in a wider historical context Labour slipped into third place, behind the Conservatives who were the real winners on the night. A Blairite candidate may prove attractive in areas where Labour is battling with the Conservatives, but the national identity of Labour as a radical left-wing party  would mean that a return to the centre would be more likely to stunt Labour’s recovery than to aid it.

Scottish Labour have the opportunity to elect a candidate who can work with the Labour leadership at Westminster. Unity across the parties nationally will go a long way to easing the appearance of an ideological civil war within the party and a pro-Corbyn candidate could help to export Corbyn’s popularity in England into key Scottish battleground seat which could well prove the differences between a Tory government and Labour one.

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Last Update: April 22, 2018