Brian Wilson: Labour must work better together

Johann Lamont and John Reid out campaigning. Picture: Getty
Johann Lamont and John Reid out campaigning. Picture: Getty
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THE party’s representatives at Holyrood and Westminster have to come up with big ideas to win back Scots voters, writes Brian Wilson.

If IT was Johann Lamont’s intention to inflict maximum damage on the Scottish Labour Party as she stood down as leader – and it is difficult to interpret the mode of her departure otherwise – then she has certainly achieved a spectacular hit.

Whoever succeeds her will have to withstand her “branch office” jibe for a while to come and will inherit an historically low standing in opinion polls. I doubt if, in retrospect, Johann will think these legacies do justice either to herself or the people who put faith in her.

At the centre of her case is the complaint that “London Labour” is responsible for the Scottish Labour Party’s difficulties. Frankly, this is self-exculpatory nonsense. The vast majority of Scottish Labour’s challenges – on leadership, policies, presentation and organisation – have been handcrafted in Scotland over the past decade and more.

If the next few weeks are devoted to hiding from that uncomfortable reality and end up with an outcome that reflects denial, then Labour will continue to flounder. On the other hand, an opportunity exists to create a much more effective, coherent and radical political force than we have seen for some time. It is a big decision.

It is, of course, ridiculous if the main official of the Labour Party in Scotland was removed without Johann Lamont being consulted. But you have to wonder how the relationship had deteriorated to the point at which this was even possible or could ultimately be deemed necessary.

Scottish Labour’s under-performance in the referendum campaign was a much more serious matter which demanded scrutiny and explanation. Until last Friday, Johann Lamont was the person who should have explained it but didn’t. Even worse was Scottish Labour’s performance in the immediate aftermath of victory on 18 September.

Anyone who knows anything about Scottish politics would have predicted, correctly, that, no matter the referendum result, the Nationalists would pop up next day to claim victory and carry on where they left off. It is what they have been doing for decades. Yet, at this critical moment, Labour disappeared and almost managed to pluck defeat from the jaws of victory.

Labour in general had been dangerously slow to recognise the seriousness of the referendum threat. From the day the SNP were gifted a majority at Holyrood – and that wasn’t “London’s” fault either – there should have been a strategy for the challenge ahead, not least because the very existence of Labour as a potential party of government depended upon it.

That certainly did not happen. I always thought it bizarre that able Scottish MPs such as Douglas Alexander and Jim Murphy were given shadow cabinet jobs that took them as far away as possible from Scotland, rather than being at the heart of the looming fight for survival on their doorsteps. By the time Labour started to assemble a campaign, much of the ground had been lost and the appearance of MPs was seen as a rescue operation, reinforcing the turf war mentality.

This, in my view, is a big part of the problem. All we have heard about for years concerning relationships between Scottish Labour MPs and their counterparts at Holyrood involves “tensions”, never teamwork. It is as if they are two different organisations, each resentful and suspicious of the other. That is the exact opposite of how Scottish Labour must operate if it is to succeed.

In the real world, few people care about the distinction between MPs and MSPs. I have been out of politics for nearly a decade, yet I am asked with great regularity “Are you that MSP?” or “Are you still an MP?” or variations thereof. I’ve always remembered the late Norman Buchan observing, just a little bit ruefully: “We occupy a lot less of our constituents’ thoughts than we would like to think”.

What voters would like to see and hear is the strongest possible Labour team articulating a case they can identify with in a competent manner. It is not rocket science. Yet no Labour leader since devolution has made much effort to weld that coherent force, using the talent that exists within both parliaments to maximum effect.

Scottish Labour has excellent people at both Holyrood and Westminster, but we hear little from most of them. The new Scottish leader should recognise this as a massive own goal and bring them together as a single campaigning force. That always would have been the best way to address the “London Labour” chip on the shoulder. Instead, the gap has been allowed to widen rather than narrow.

Much is written about “the threat to Labour’s dominance” in Scotland, without reference to the fact that Labour itself was the main architect of that process. It was Labour which created a Scottish Parliament based on proportional representation in order to avoid handing itself a majority. (The supposed trade-off was that the SNP wouldn’t have one either, but that hasn’t gone very well.)

Labour then undermined its local base by introducing PR into council elections. I can’t say I have noticed any improvement in local government, but it certainly had the intended effect of ending Labour control in many areas. Few political parties in history have been so generous in giving away power to their opponents. It is a bit rich to then fret over how “Labour dominance” has been eroded.

Far too many of Labour’s Holyrood generation spent formative political years in schismatic groups, seeing devolution as an end in itself and everything else would follow. The result was that when they got what they wanted, they did not have a lot of ideas about what to do with it; and then, when it all went wrong, moan about Westminster. There are now good, younger MSPs who do not have that baggage and can surely see the bigger picture.

Scottish Labour’s opportunity lies in the scale of the challenge it faces. It needs to start thinking again – the word “ideas” has the same derivation as ideology and is the more urgent priority. It needs to form a team, drawing on the rich pool of talent in both parliaments. And it might usefully start reminding voters of the vast array of good things that Labour governments did, both at Westminster and Holyrood.

Some 42 per cent of Scots voted Labour in 2010. It is perfectly possible to repeat that result and go on to a similar one in 2016 if Scottish Labour gets its act together. The alternative outcome is now fairly obvious.

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