Preview: What will the big issues be at the Scottish Labour conference?


Trident and Scottish Labour autonomy are likely to be the main controversies at Labour’s conference in Perth

THE SCOTTISH LABOUR PARTY is set to hold its first national conference since the election of its new leader Kezia Dugdale and the shock landslide victory of Jeremy Corbyn as UK party leader.

Scottish Labour is weaker now than at any time in modern history. It was reduced to just a single Scottish MP in the May General Election and faces another fierce trial in the Holyrood elections in May 2016.

The Scottish party leadership has vowed to let a new democratic mood flourish at the conference, held from 30 to 31 October in Perth, and though Corbyn himself has said he will leave Scottish party matters alone, members on the left of the party go into the conference with a new wind in their sails.

CommonSpace looks at the upcoming Scottish Labour conference.

The Players

Kezia Dugdale : Scottish party leader since August, Dugdale is the latest in a long line of short lived party leaders and arrived into the heart of the ‘Corbynmania’ storm. She had initially distanced herself from Corbyn, saying that his election could leave the party “carping from the sidelines”, but reconciled with him after he won.

She has vowed to change Scottish Labour, especially by making it autonomous from the Westminster party.

Dugdale will make her keynote speech to the conference on Saturday afternoon.

Alex Rowley : Rowley is seen as a figure broadly on the left of the party, but fiercely loyal to Labour above all. Rowley has already appealed for a more autonomous Scottish party, calling for Labour to become the party of Home Rule and has called for a referendum on scrapping Trident.

Rowley will address the conference in its final session on Sunday afternoon.

Jeremy Corbyn : The long time leftist who won a shock leadership landslide in September, Corbyn is wildly popular among lay party members and activists, but frequently at odds with his own parliamentarians. He has said he will not interfere in Scottish party business.

Corbyn will make his speech to the conference on Friday afternoon.

Corbynism : Much of the dynamic of the conference will depend on the extent to which Corbyn supporters on the party’s hard left are able to shape events.

Although the party membership has grown roughly in proportion with the UK organisation, and although the new Momentum movement has been launched in Scotland, the left has yet to make itself felt in the Scottish party, with no Corbyn supporters in the shadow cabinet.

Tom Watson : Watson was elected deputy leader of the UK party on the same day as Corbyn, and was immediately faced with the unenviable task of marshalling the centrist parliamentary Labour party in behind Corbyn’s leadership.

Watson will address the conference on Sunday morning.

Trident renewal

It is likely that Scottish Labour’s position on Trident renewal will become a major flashpoint between the left and right of the party.

Kezia Dugdale said in August that members would be free to vote on the Scottish party’s Trident position. In the event that the Scottish party opted to oppose renewal, a gulf would open up between the Scottish and UK parties.

Yet for a debate to go ahead on the controversial weapons, based at Faslane near Glasgow, party members will have to vote on the opening Friday on wether to debate it at all.

Trident was a disappointment for party leftists at the UK conference in September, when the Labour party renewed its existing policy in support of the nuclear weapons system despite the new leader’s longstanding opposition to the weapons.

The media also seized upon his opposition to Trident, with much of the conference dominated by the gulf between himself and the parliamentary Labour party and the question of whether he would ever use nuclear weapons.

The vote on Trident is gearing up to be the left of the party’s main bridgehead into Scottish party policy. A vote to oppose Trident could shift the national debate in Corbyn’s favour.

Scottish party autonomy

On his first trip to Scotland as Labour leader, Corbyn attempted to hush criticisms that the Scottish Labour party was merely a ‘branch office’ of the London party, a phrase infamously coined by former Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont. He vowed to keep his distance from Scottish party affairs.

For her part, Dugdale will want to talk up the extent of the new autonomy the party will gain under her leadership. Dugdale and Corbyn have agreed measures to give Scottish Labour more powers over policy making, candidate selection and membership in what Dugdale has termed a federal structure for the UK party.

Yet her plans have already come in for major criticism from within the party, with one senior party insider quoted in the Herald describing her plans as a ” dogs dinner “.

Ironically, the clearest sign of a divergence and a separate political identity for Scottish Labour may come in the form of an anti-Trident renewal position, an outcome Dugdale is unlikely to welcome.

Picture courtesy of Defence Images