Brian Monteith: Yes campaign heading for scandal

Picture: PA
Picture: PA
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Answers are needed about Labour for Independence group and the SNP, writes Brian Monteith

SOMETIMES, what seems like a small, inconsequential story refuses to die, until the issues it raises begin to take on a life of their own and they consume the subjects in embarrassment and ridicule because they did not attend to legitimate public concerns early enough.

The case of the support being given by the SNP and Yes Scotland to Labour for Independence is becoming one such story.

Last week, on the ThinkScotland website I edit, one of our regular columnists and well-known journalist Euan McColm, who writes for Scotsman sister paper Scotland on Sunday, posted a story revealing that the campaign group “Labour for Independence” was not all that it seemed.

In particular, he was able to point to a photograph of a group of activists gathered round a Labour for Independence banner in Kilmarnock that had appeared on the group’s own website and that of Yes East Ayrshire. The accompanying caption had listed the names of those in the photo and called them Yes campaigners.

It had, however, omitted to mention that four of the five people were in fact SNP members or activists, including the SNP leader of East Ayrshire council. The photo was put together with others that showed these people proudly wearing SNP rosettes.

The implication was clear: by not revealing the true affiliations of those in the photograph, any reader would be left thinking that Labour for Independence was well supported – when it was not.

Further evidence showed a senior nationalist youth activist was circulating Labour for Independence leaflets – and bragging about it.

Not surprisingly, the story generated media reports the next day and appeared on BBC’s Newsnight Scotland – by which time a further photograph had been discovered. This time, the familiar banner was in Midlothian and being held up by four councillors – all of them members of the SNP group that forms the administration. This time there was no Labour person to be seen.

Now, at this point, a story is likely to die through lack of oxygen unless some new development comes to light. Those in the gaze of the public have a choice: keep quiet and hope it is of no consequence and will blow over – or put out a firm denial that shows the matter can be explained or is being exaggerated.

But rather than kill the story, it was allowed to become a running sore. Matters took a provocative turn when the Yes Campaign deputy director for communities, Stan Blackley, started provoking Euan McColm repeatedly in public on Twitter.

Matters then escalated yesterday when two new photographs appeared that raised further questions as to what really is the relationship between Labour for Independence, the SNP and Yes Scotland.

A picture of the ubiquitous banner showed an SNP councillor from East Lothian on the group’s stall while another showed SNP councillors with piles of Labour for Independence leaflets.

More troubling still, the group’s national treasurer and Edinburgh and Lothians organiser, Celia Fitzgerald, was quoted as being a member of the SNP up until November last year but had left to join Labour and Labour for Independence. A photograph of her with Alex Salmond that she had circulated via her Twitter account appeared. Fitzgerald had left Labour after 30 years to join the SNP in 2004: now she was returning, but more like a double agent than a convert.

Likewise, the group’s chairman, Alex Bell, only joined Labour last year.

Such a pattern of behaviour strongly suggests that people have intentionally set out to form a front organisation designed to fool the Scottish public that there is a large body of Labour members that wants independence, and have been found out. Needing support on the ground, SNP members – including well-known councillors – have taken off their rosettes and lapel badges to give an air of authenticity to the struggling group.

Now, it is commonly known that there are some Labour voters who might vote for independence, just as we know there are some SNP voters who don’t want to break up the United Kingdom. Both groups are important to the respective Yes and No campaigns; without the support of a large number of Labour voters, the independence campaign will be lost. For the No campaign, the arithmetic is less challenging, for even if every SNP voter supported independence, they would still be a minority – but the No campaign is keen to win convincingly and so it too wants to reach out to those who elected Alex Salmond but don’t want independence.

This no doubt explains why, for instance, the Conservatives established Conservative Friends of the Union – in the hope the party could reach out beyond its normal core vote – and why the Yes Campaign chief executive, Blair Jenkins, attended the launch of the Labour for Independence campaign.

There is, however, a difference – the Conservative group was set up by the party itself and its raison d’etre is in line with Tory policy. By comparison, the Labour group has nothing to do with the party and is completely at odds with what it stands for.

That senior SNP figures are involved in backing the sham group is now beyond question – the photographs tell us this – but the full extent to which the SNP and Yes Scotland have intentionally used the body as a Trojan horse to dupe the public has yet to be answered.

Has Yes Scotland funded the establishment of the campaign group? It admits to paying for some of its activities. To what extent does it provide services and support in kind? How far up the leadership chain at Yes Scotland and the SNP does the involvement and decision-making go to support Labour for Independence, financially and logistically?

There is every possibility that further evidence of the closeness between Labour for Independence and the SNP will emerge. In the meantime, Blair Jenkins has some searching questions to answer about his own campaign and the conduct of his staff if he is not to be engulfed in a scandal of Yes Scotland’s making.