Sunday 19 November 2017

Congratulations Comrade Leonard

And so this years Scottish Labour leadership contest is at an end. I said at the start that I would vote for Anas, which I did, but I also said at the start that I would be content with either candidate, which I am.

I thought Richard ran much the better campaign because he actually promised so little and that was the clever thing to do.

Anas's campaign was policy, often innovative policy, rich, whereas you would struggle to find much in Richard's platform that is not current Scottish Labour Party policy. That is as it should be.

There will be no Scottish Parliament election for three and a half years and by that time the Scottish political environment will be very different.

I see no reason that the stasis in the SNP's approach to our public services will have moved on, so scared are they of offending any section of their fragile "Yes coalition", so inevitably by 2021 the condition of our public services will be much worse. Whether, however, the electorate will have concluded that this is due to their being insufficient money, and thus be willing to thole tax rises to address this or whether, instead, they will conclude that existing money is being unwisely deployed.....we'll know that in three years time. Richard's cautious approach on this is surely better than Anas's comprehensive and specific proposals. Richard even cleverly threw some red meat to his supporters with his proposal for a wealth tax which he quietly acknowledged in the small print was beyond the existing powers of the Scottish Parliament. This, dare I say it, is one straight out of the SNP playbook. No less clever for that.

Anyway, in three and a half years time we will be but a year out from a UK election. It would be lunatic for Scottish Labour to fight a Holyrood election promising that no matter what taxes were levied and public spending sanctioned by a supposedly imminent radical, left-wing Westminster Government, taxes and spending would be higher in Scotland still. So lunatic that it is not going to happen. Instead we will fight the Hoyrood election promising to fund certain things and implying we will raise taxes if required to do so. And that's as far as we'll go. Richard got that. Anas didn't.

And in three and a half years time UK Labour politics will also have moved on. Corbynism at the moment floats along on the illusion that a UK General election, and a Labour Government, is somehow imminent. In reality neither is. Because of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act the only way the Tories will not stumble on until 2022 is if they want an early election. Which, unless the polls have moved very decisively in their favour, is not going to happen. Indeed, standing their near death experience earlier this year, even if they were twenty points ahead in the polls, such an opportunistic early contest would be a hard sell internally.

So Corbyn's age will become an issue. He is currently 68. By June 2022 he will be 73. Some Countries have a tradition of political gerontocracy but ours does not. Sure, Churchill won aged 76 in 1951 but he was something of a special case and that administration generally accepted not to be exactly his finest hour. Other than that, every 20th or 21st Century Prime Minister has been significantly younger and elected in the reasonable certainty that they'd be capable of being in office for a full term. Once the idea of an imminent further contest has been eroded by the passage of time, attention will inevitably turn to this. And if we're going to change leader then we'll want that done before the Summer of 2021.

Now that might be just to someone of similar politics but I wouldn't bet on it. What Corbyn won in 2015 was essentially a personality contest. So will the next contest be. I credit Corbyn with having moved the Party's policy agenda to the left but not with establishing forever a messianic cult of ultra left leadership. So his departure will be the opportunity for a changed climate of internal debate which I suspect will also lead to a return to the Party's Westminster talent being more fully deployed. And that rapprochement will also spill over to Scotland. Short term, it has suited Richard to be Corbyn's candidate but long term, if he wants to be FM, he will want to lead a united Party. And also, as I pointed out when I wrote at the start of the contest, Richard has no personal history of Party sectarianism. Here's however another thing. He traded,over the last three months, on having opposed the challenge to Corbyn in 2016 but he's never to my knowledge said who he voted for in 2015. Someone should ask him.

And that leads me to my final point. We have no idea what the Scottish political landscape will look like in 2021 but almost inevitably it will remain utterly dominated by the National question.  All the attention has been on whether Nicola will attempt to call another referendum before May 2021 but, like the question of whether there will be an early UK election, this is simply something which is not going to happen. She would need a section 30 and Mrs May is not for her having one. As indeed would be any other conceivable Tory leader. But come 2021 the internal politics of the SNP will make a manifesto pledge to hold another vote almost certainly unavoidable. Yet all external evidence indicates that such a pledge is electorally toxic to sufficient of the electorate to deny the Nats, even with their Green allies, a Holyrood majority for that proposition.  Indeed, that's the very reason they are so desperate, however forlornly, to have a pre 2021 poll.

What happens then? Suppose the 2021 Scottish election gives none of the three "big" Parties a workable governing coalition without one of the others?  Well, here's the clever thing. Richard has emerged from a contest in which this was surely the most obvious question to ask without ever having answered it at all.

So Comrade Leonard doesn't have his immediate troubles to seek but he has emerged from victory with two substantial assets. The first is the absence of any hostages to fortune but the second is far more valuable still. Time.

Peter Mandelson would be proud of him.