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LANDIN IN SCOTLAND: Is the Independent Group really a seismic shift?

A WEEK, or so Westminster’s most cliched saying goes, is a long time in politics. This pithy turn of phrase from Harold Wilson is likely to get more than one outing in this weekend’s papers, as commentators seek to trumpet the defections from Labour and the Tories to the new Independent Group of MPs.

“Trumpet” is indeed the best verb, as there is likely to be little in the way of understanding or proper analysis. 

As the Guardian’s Owen Jones argued earlier this week, no demographic has been crying out for this shift like Britain’s national press. And with this to spur them on, the total lack of a popular base is likely to be no barrier to the Independent Group — until they have to face the electorate, at least.

But is this really the “seismic shift” that so many are making it out to be? On the contrary, it’s arguable that little has changed at all since last weekend. 

The defections from Labour have been talked about since day one of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. This sorry bunch were doing as much — if not more — damage to the party from inside than they can from outside, so their long-awaited departure is hardly a hammerblow. 

Ex-Labour rightwingers may now be sitting on the same benches as ex-Tories, but it wouldn’t be the first time they’ve plotted and voted together.

In last weekend’s column, I said there was little opportunity for a new party (my use of the term “centrist” to describe it was justifiably chastised on the letters page) to take off in Scotland. 

“Independent” has a different meaning north of the border, and not one that Blairites and Cameroons would be happy signing up to. But ironically, it is the SNP which would prove their biggest barrier. 

Nicola Sturgeon’s party has fully saturated the market for a big tent pro-EU group offering vague platitudes while slavishly defending the status quo.
That’s not to say Scotland is short of opportunists who would jump ship in more favourable circumstances. 

Since the left won control of the leadership in Westminster and Holyrood, Scottish Labour’s old guard have been creating as much trouble as their friends in the south.

Ian Murray, the one-time shadow Scottish secretary who got this role by virtue of being Scotland’s only Labour MP after 2015, has merited the most defection speculation this week. 

Since the start of last year, Murray’s primary focus has been uncritically championing the European Union. Last week Murray said MPs were being “pushed to the brink” by Corbyn’s refusal to back a second EU referendum. 

He also branded a pledge to work for the election of a Labour-led government regardless of the party leader as “ridiculous.”

In his Europhilia, Murray has found common cause with the former Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale, who, fresh from the jungle of I’m a Celeb, formed Scottish Labour for the Single Market as a private company — with her and Murray as the only directors. 

The company’s first set of accounts are not due to be filed until later this year — by which time its purpose will probably be defunct.

Dugdale this week ruled out a breakaway from Scottish Labour at Holyrood, but described the quitters as “seven individuals at their wits’ end.”

Last autumn she publicly complained that Labour was no longer funding her libel defence against Stuart Campbell, who runs the Wings over Scotland blog, over an allegation she made in her Daily Record column. 

There was no paper trail at Labour HQ to establish how former general secretary Iain McNicol had taken the decision that the party would back an expensive defence relating to an extra job that was always considered a private matter for Dugdale.

Still, the former leader argued, Labour had gone back back on a promise. She went on to ask: “How can people trust that party in any other aspect of life if this is what’s happening?” 

Perhaps she has a point — if voters, as she evidently does, judge parties on whether they agree to supply former leaders with endless streams of parties, rather than their actual policies.

Another depositary of bitterness in Holyrood’s Labour group is Anas Sarwar, whose influence has been on the wane since he lost the 2017 leadership election to Richard Leonard. 

Last year he was accused of interfering in the Glasgow South West selection for a Westminster candidate, in order to install a controversial ally in place of previous candidate Matt Kerr, who was eventually selected again.

In October Sarwar and fellow rightwinger Jackie Baillie were dropped from Labour’s front bench at Holyrood. Writing in the Scottish Left Review, Labour activist Mike Cowley suggested the pair had been responsible for “repeated briefings against [Leonard] from within his cabinet from day one.”

Ahead of Scottish Labour’s conference next month, we can expect to hear plenty more from this sorry bunch of malcontents. As the party leadership puts forward its vision to win back Scotland, expect parallel briefings seeking to magnify internal squabbles and discredit the party’s leftward shift. 

If the naysayers were ever in it for a cause, just what was it?

Hatton and Watson

FORMER Militant tendency firebrand Derek Hatton, the Daimler-driving deputy leader of Liverpool council in the 1980s, was suspended from Labour this week — just two days after rejoining.

Deputy leader Tom Watson had written to general secretary Jennie Formby urging her to reconsider Mr Hatton’s readmission to Labour, which was first reported on Monday.

“We will never win a general election if Derek Hatton ends up running the Labour Party,” he told a radio programme.

But were relations between the two deputies always so fraught? In 2015, Hatton donated £100 to Watson’s deputy leadership campaign. “Best of luck mate,” Hatton posted on Watson’s gofundme page.

“Return to Blairism would be [the] end of [the] Labour Party.”

Hatton also told the Liverpool Echo he was “impressed” by Watson, and when he won, tweeted: “Well done Tom Watson now just need JC to win.....#dreamteam.”

Watson, for his part, credited Hatton with “the greatest mullet in British political history” in a jokey exchange in 2014.

By the time Labour MPs were turning on Corbyn after the Brexit vote, though, Hatton was less complimentary.

“Hearing that our ‘friend’ Tom Watson played treacherous role mate,” Hatton said in reply to a tweet by musician Peter Hooton of The Farm. “Demands rethink!!” 

Shortly after he bemoaned that Watson was “once solid, now fluffy Blairite!” 

He went further last year, tweeting: “Watson is guaranteed eternal shame within the Labour Movement. Total treachery.”

Perhaps it’s no wonder Labour’s leading Corbynsceptic doesn’t want to repay Degsy’s generosity.

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