THERE’S a phrase that’s been heard for generations in saloon bars across Scotland. It’s a phrase men use to describe a certain kind of strong woman you wouldn’t want to cross.
It’s sometimes used disparagingly and misogynistically. But more often it’s uttered with grudging respect, tinged with a wee bit of fear. The phrase is: “I wouldn’t take a torn pay packet home to her”. People say it about Johann Lamont, the new Scottish Labour leader. I’ve heard them. And I’m in no doubt whatsoever this could become one of her biggest political assets.
In her leader’s speech to the Scottish Labour conference yesterday, Lamont not only showed she was aware of this perception, she shamelessly played up to it. In a passage describing the empty rhetoric of much political discourse, she listed the kind of promises that mean nothing. “The cheque’s in the post.” “Loved your speech.” And also: “I’ll be right home”. Every man listening who has ever nipped into a boozer for a swift half, and dallied, instantly went “ouch”. For extra emphasis, Lamont then mentioned the name of her husband Archie. The tone was unmistakable. It said: “This means you, sunshine”.
I reckon Lamont has taken a leaf from the book of Annabel Goldie, the former Scottish Tory leader. Annabel knew everyone saw her as a kind of whoops-matron Hattie Jacques figure, so she turned her every political appearance into a scene from Carry On Conservatism. Voters loved it, and Goldie was second only to Alex Salmond as the most recognisable figure at Holyrood. In politics, profile is everything. And if people can instantly get a handle on who you are and what you are, even if it’s an amplification, it’s half the battle. Iain Gray never managed to pull this off, and look what happened to him. But Lamont can, by being what every Scot can instantly recognise and respect: a working class matriarch; a wifie to be reckoned with.
Anyone who doubts the importance of this kind of thing need only look at recent polls, in which four Scots out of ten felt unable to give a verdict on how well Lamont was doing her job. The simple reason was they had little or no idea who she was. She needs to impose herself on the public consciousness, and fast.
Enough image tweakery. What about the political content of yesterday’s speech? There were some signs of boldness. It takes some smeddum to try to out-nat the Nats, but that’s precisely what Lamont tried to do by attacking the decision to grant construction contracts for the new Forth road bridge to the Chinese, the Poles and the Spanish, instead of Scottish firms. Same with the renting out of Forestry Commission land to overseas firms, “allowing foreign companies to exploit Scotland’s natural resources for a fraction of what this country could make if we did the work ourselves”. This kind of politics isn’t pretty, but it has a deep resonance. And I doubt very much the SNP has ever had to defend itself from this kind of charge before. Interesting.
But elsewhere there was evidence Scottish Labour still has blind spots when taking on the Nationalists. In particular, there’s still a disconnect between Labour’s commitment to social justice and its commitment to home rule. The party that delivered devolution has come to regard the constitution as enemy territory, to be advanced upon with tentative care - like when the Conservative party turns its attention to the National Health Service. An issue on which Scottish Labour should have been constantly developing a compelling narrative has been left to atrophy for fear of inadvertently handing the SNP an advantage. Labour has developed a tin ear for the constitution, and as a result it is letting opportunities go a-begging.
Take the welfare state. Some of Lamont’s best lines yesterday were attacks on the SNP over the way it has responded to welfare reform. Nationalists, she said, saw every Tory cut “not as a blow to Scottish families but as an opportunity to boost their separatist agenda”. Lamont asked a simple question: what does the SNP propose to do about welfare dependency? This is a blind spot for the Nats. On one of Scotland’s most pernicious social ills, they simply have nothing to say.
But Lamont seems incapable of joining the dots and coming to the obvious conclusion - that Scotland needs to take control of welfare benefits. The SNP talks about more powers for Holyrood almost solely in terms of financial and fiscal levers. Labour has an opportunity to talk about more powers in a way that would have a direct impact on millions of lives, including the most vulnerable in our society. But because it’s a constitutional matter, and Labour has lost its home rule mojo, this obvious conclusion is bodyswerved.
Unbelievably, Labour is still sending out the wrong messages on some of the most cherished symbols of Scottishness. At one point yesterday Lamont said: “I will wear the saltire with pride, but I won’t bind it around my eyes so I cannot see the injustice in our country.” It’s great to hear a Scottish Labour leader say: “I will wear the saltire with pride.” That should be the end of the matter. There should be no ‘buts’. Similarly, Lamont said: “If you measure your love of your country in yards of tartan, go with the other guy not with me.” This sounds like the kind of Scottish man who would rather chew off an arm than wear a kilt. Completely unnecessary.
Let’s be clear. Lamont has a long way to go before she is seen as a potential First Minister. And her party has a long way to travel before it can even begin to say it has learned the lessons of last May. There are signs the penny has begun to drop - I particularly liked “I believe that power lies with the Scottish people... The question is not what powers should Scotland claw back, but which powers should we share”. But until Scottish Labour is cringe-free about the constitution, it is going nowhere.