Another day, another crude and manufactured row aimed at denting the popularity of the Labour leadership, this time in Scotland. Jeremy Corbyn delivered a speech to the Scottish Labour Conference in which he went over familiar territory: Brexit must not mean dilution of workers’ rights, and the use by unscrupulous employers of importing labour to depress wages - gangmaster tactics - should not be tolerated.
Here’s what he said: “We cannot be held back inside or outside the EU from taking the steps we need to develop and invest in cutting edge industries and local businesses stop the tide of privatisation and outsourcing, or from preventing employers being able to import cheap agency labour to undercut existing pay and conditions in the name of free market orthodoxy”. His target was clearly the employers doing the importing of cheap labour.
And that might have been that, but for the headline given to its report by broadcaster STV, which told “Corbyn: Brexit can stop migrants being used to cut wages”. Migrants were cutting wages! Migrants were at fault! Boo! Rubbish dog-whistle politics! It’s UKIP all over again! That might sound a bit of a big ask, but the SNP were off like a shot after it.
Although STV also said “Immigrants being used to cut wages”, suggesting someone else may be doing the using, Stewart McDonald, MP for Glasgow South, had made his mind up: “A nasty anti-immigrant speech from Jeremy Corbyn during his visit to Scotland - and one that is based on the lie that foreigners are to blame for cheap Labour. Decent people in Scottish Labour need to call this out”. Just a little OTT, or what?
But that was only the beginning. Next came McDonald’s party leader Nicola Sturgeon to rub it in: “Labour spelling Keir Hardie’s name wrong was amusing. Hearing them echo Nigel Farage is profoundly depressing”. Is she trying to distract Scots from some kind of bad news? No matter, the SNP’s press pals were there in support.
“NICOLA Sturgeon has accused Labour of ‘echoing Nigel Farage’ after Jeremy Corbyn used his keynote speech at the Scottish branch office conference to complain about immigration … His comments drew criticism from across the political spectrum … Sturgeon was quick to hit out at the speech … Sounds like Jeremy is standing up for the many Ukip voters” told The National. Which is pro-SNP.
It was left to Glasgow North East MP Paul Sweeney to make the obvious point: “Corbyn was opposing the use of exploitative cross-border agency labour in industries like construction, which is gangmaster-sourced and not subject to trade union or UK employment contracts. It's not about opposing immigration to work on the same terms as other British citizens”. Some non-stories really are non-stories.
And while the Tories are usually masters of exploiting any sign of perceived weakness in their opponents, Corbyn’s position on gangmaster-like behaviour is so well known at Westminster that they would probably not have raised a peep about that speech. It’s doing no more than restating a position he’s carved out many times before.
Whether that means the SNP are better at picking holes in their opponents than the Tories, or just showing signs of desperation, is something I will leave to others to decide.