5 key things to look out for at Scottish Labour’s 2018 conference

Alasdair Clark

CommonSpace takes a look at what the key moments of Scottish Labour’s annual conference might be

PARTY INSIDERS have promised the annual Scottish Labour conference in Dundee this weekend will be the party’s biggest for years.

Richard Leonard will make his first big conference speech as leader and after the party slipped into third place in Scottish politics, will Leonard finally set out his answer to the question, “what next for Scottish Labour?”.

Will 2018 pass without another Scottish Labour leadership election?

Fear not, because just as the sun will rise tomorrow 2018 will not pass without an internal Scottish Labour leadership election. Interim deputy leader Lesley Laird MP has joined Richard Leonard at the helm of Scottish Labour since Fife MSP Alex Rowley stepped down amidst claims of inappropriate behaviour. 

Apart from Laird, the other names rumoured to be considering a run in the election are the MSPs Monica Lennon and Jenny Marra, the new MP for Midlothian Danielle Rowley, as well as a number of councillors. The conference will give them an opportunity to network with the members and influential trade union leaders as they scope out their likely success in any bid for deputy. 

CommonSpace will be looking out for who is speaking to who over the weekend. 

Will Brexit be the explosive issue of the conference? 

Powerful party movers are behind a new internal campaign group Scottish Labour for the Single Market, co-chaired by former leader Kezia Dugdale. Some have seen it as a challenge to Dugdale’s successor Richard Leonard and the UK leader Jeremy Corbyn’s position on the single market. In a major speech outlining the party’s approach to Brexit, Corbyn stopped short of committing to the single market in favour of a “bespoke trade deal”. 

The powerful executive of Scottish Labour appeared to halt a full vote on the issue on the eve of the conference, whilst there will still be a debate the vote will instead be on a “unity statement” issued by the party leadership. Senior sources close to the single market campaign said it didn’t bode well for party democracy.

Does the new leadership have the answers key to its recovery in Scotland?

Jeremy Corbyn will pronounce on Friday that “Labour is back in Scotland”, and both he and Leonard have said previously that they want to win over the independence voters who have switched support almost uniformly to the SNP and the Scottish Greens.

Neither has been able to answer how that can happen whilst the party remains at odds with those voters on fundamental issues like Brexit and Scottish independence, and neither of Leonard’s predecessors were able to capture that support either. 

It won’t be enough to promise that things will be better with Labour, and the polls indicate there will be no Scottish resurgence for the party under the left-wing leadership of Leonard and Corbyn unless they tackle those difficult questions head-on.

What about their plan to  handle the Tory resurgence?

Polls show the Tory resurgence in Scotland seems to have hit a ceiling, but Scottish Labour will be hoping to at least drop back into second place at Holyrood by winning back voters who switched their support to the Tories. Insiders say time has been called on the Jim Murphy and Kezia Dugdale-era strategy of trying to out-union Ruth Davidson, so the party will have to walk a fine line with those anti-independence voters as it simultaneously tries to convince independence supporters.

Where are the party’s young members? 

Last year’s conference ended with tweets from a candidate to chair the party’s youth wing saying he felt dejected by the lack of young, grassroots members taking centre stage. With Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and Richard Leonard’s election bringing new young faces into the party fold, party watchers will be looking to see if they are represented across the conference. A host of fringe events are organised by Scottish Young Labour and the student wing including discussions on policy issues such a housing, as well as a strategy discussion on “Labour in power?”. 

For all the latest from Dundee as it happens, follow CommonSpace this weekend. 

Picture courtesy of David Thomson

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