Talking Politics: SNP stepping into the Opposition void as Labour leadership contest rumbles on

Mhairi Black
Mhairi Black

It is coming to something when the most powerful speech heard in the Commons for some years comes from its youngest member.

Mhairi Black, swept into Parliament on the SNP landslide aged just 20, used her maiden speech to offer some home truths to the Labour Party.

“I, like many SNP members, come from a traditional socialist Labour family and I have never been quiet in my assertion that I feel that it is the Labour Party that left me, not the other way about,” she told the Commons before quoting “a personal hero of mine” Tony Benn on the need for politicians who stand by their principles rather than chase public opinion.

Many on the left yearn for a new Tony Benn to revive Labour, but there are no new Tony Benns to be had. Bafflingly, many now appear hellbent on settling for a poor man’s Michael Foot in Jeremy Corbyn.

Anyway, the United Kingdom is not Scotland. Perhaps Jeremy Corbyn could begin to repair the damage done to Labour north of the border, but his chances of leading Labour to a national election victory are negligible.

His chief rival Liz Kendall cuts a divisive figure within the party because she understands this and opts for an openly pragmatic approach.

“We could have stopped [the] suffering that Thatcher imposed on communities had we been [a] credible alternative rather than simply a party of protest,” she tweeted this week.

But there’s a fine line between offering a credible alternative and offering more of the same, a problem exacerbated by Kendall’s refusal to condemn key welfare cuts in the wake of the Budget.

Comparisons are made, inevitably, to Tony Blair’s moves to woo the middle classes away from the Conservatives in the late 1990s. But Blair in opposition was able to articulate a clear vision, the fabled ‘third way’ that promised a more just society while recognising that the economy needs to be in decent shape to pay for it all. Thus far, Kendall has failed to articulate any vision beyond Labour winning the next election.

The SNP, meanwhile, are like kids let loose in a sweet shop. What they lack in experience, they more than make up for in enthusiasm – it is genuinely refreshing to see a group of MPs so obviously thrilled to be at Westminster.

And they are exercising real clout, as seen in their role in getting this week’s vote on repealing the fox hunting ban delayed. But the longer the SNP is left to hog the opposition limelight, the worse the prospects of Labour regaining momentum.