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Kezia Dugdale’s shock departure as party leader has put Scottish Labour at a long overdue crossroads. In recent years, a gradual slide to the centre has trashed its support in even the safest of seats.
The perception among many – rightly or wrongly – was that Scottish Labour had abandoned its traditional working class support. Seemingly detached from the membership and the trade unions, the party was almost wiped out in the disastrous 2015 general election, then left in third place in the 2016 Holyrood election and 2017 local government elections.
The membership has two clear paths ahead: more of the same, or embracing the socialist policies of the manifesto that saw the party make some recovery in this year’s snap election. Now is the time to seize the opportunity, put class politics back into Holyrood and rebuild Labour support throughout Scotland.
It is almost unbelievable to think that just a few months ago people mused that a ‘progressive alliance’ was the only option for a government led by Jeremy Corbyn. The SNP’s hold on Scotland was expected to be a long-term feature of UK politics. This could not be further from the reality. As Campaign for Socialism, the left-wing Scottish pressure group I chair, has argued from the beginning, an unashamedly socialist programme for Scotland is the only way to push back against the austerity that is crushing communities here as well as across the rest of the UK.
In Scotland, it has been only too obvious that the SNP may talk left at Westminster, but its time in government at Holyrood and locally tells a different story. It has shown support, time and time again, for a big business agenda with tax breaks for the richest and cuts to public services. It has repeatedly refused to use the Scottish Parliament to challenge structural inequality. It is no more than New Labour in a kilt.
Only in the past few weeks has the SNP at Holyrood made noises (though no clear commitments) about raising taxes and breaking the pay cap. And make no mistake – these concessions have only come as a result of the threat that Corbyn’s Labour now poses.
Independence is now a receding prospect. Scottish Labour was suspicious of its radical potential from the outset but it is now clear that any such outcome from the ‘Yes movement’ has been crushed by the almost wholesale absorption of its base into the SNP. The nationalist party machine has since internally squashed any dissent or leftist policy.
As with so much else in UK politics, Jeremy Corbyn and the ‘For the Many’ manifesto has radically altered the frame of the debate. Labour is winning again in Scotland. In two years, between the 2015 and 2017 elections, we won back five constituencies, and reduced 20 seats to marginals. The mood on the doorsteps changed drastically during the election. A mistrust of Scottish Labour was common, but the manifesto and Corbyn overcame it. Whenever the next election is called we must be united behind these ideas.
Speaking openly, and loudly, about policies such as a £10 minimum wage, ending the public sector pay cap and zero hours contracts, and expanding workers’ rights is what will win Scotland back to Labour. These issues cut across national lines and are rooted in working-class demands for a fairer society and control over our lives.
The left candidate for Labour leader in Scotland, Richard Leonard (see below), has a track record as a trade unionist, socialist, and open supporter of Corbyn and the membership during the attempted coup against his leadership in 2016. If elected leader he may not be able to change everything overnight, but he will certainly put Scottish Labour back where it belongs: as a socialist party rooted in communities, fighting for workers and offering a fairer future.
Richard Leonard, the candidate of the Corbyn-supporting left in Scottish Labour’s leadership contest, is a life-long trade unionist who spent two decades as an organiser for the GMB. He says he stands for ‘a fundamental shift in power from those who own the wealth to those working people who create it’. A former economist at the Scottish TUC, he’s also the secretary of the Keir Hardie Society and supported by the Campaign for Socialism. He adds: ‘Unless we are audacious now we will never win back the support of the people of Scotland.’