Lesley Riddoch: Labour’s great divide is laid bare

Former leader Johann Lamont has pointed the way for her party. Picture: Jane Barlow
Former leader Johann Lamont has pointed the way for her party. Picture: Jane Barlow
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LEADERLESS and in freefall, the only way back for the Scottish party is to rigorously assert its independence, says Lesley Riddoch

So it’s over. After decades of outright denial about London’s control of the Scottish Labour Party, Johann Lamont’s surprise resignation and furious departing salvo have prompted senior colleagues to follow her example and spill the beans.

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Some extraordinary things have been said by men best known for saying very little at all. Former Labour finance minister Andy Kerr told a rejuvenated BBC Radio Scotland Crossfire programme: “If I was a dinosaur I’d be quite offended to be compared to some of these [Scottish Labour] MPs. Dinosaurs left the planet and there was some hope for life afterwards. These people are not going to leave any hope for life in the Scottish Labour Party. [Their] line is to gloss this over and elect someone quickly. But if you don’t sort out the problem of who runs the party in Scotland, we’re not going to get anywhere. My campaign [for the Scottish Labour leadership] was very forceful on the powers of the leader of the Scottish Labour Party – not unsurprisingly, when you put that kind of pitch to MPs, you don’t get elected, and that’s what happened to me. I believe the SNP finance minister got a better deal out of the Labour government than I did. Scottish Labour created the Scottish Parliament and since then has tried to strangle it.”

That’s very strong stuff and suggests Labour’s Westminster/Holyrood deadlock has been stifling Scottish parliamentarians for decades – not months or years.

Former first minister Henry McLeish said: ”We’ve had devolved government for almost 20 years but no devolved political power from the Labour Party in London. Westminster and UK Labour doesn’t understand Scottish politics.”

Former first minister Jack McConnell also weighed in, saying: “She [Johann Lamont] was completely undermined by the decision to remove the head of the party organisation in Scotland. We have to resolve that issue [of control] before the next leader can properly carry out the job.”

Pandora’s Box is now well and truly open – yet Westminster Labour seems determined to flip it shut and forge ahead with a rapid leadership election. That’s simply impossible. Far too many questions now exist.

Why on earth would anyone vote Labour in 2015 or 2016 in the sure and certain knowledge they are electing muzzled poodles not independent-minded, outspoken Scots?

Why did Johann Lamont put up with bullying from Westminster for so long? Is it part and parcel of the job – the curse of being the Scottish face of an English-based party? I witnessed a horrible grilling at close quarters on BBC Two’s Daily Politics when Andrew Neil effectively told Johann Lamont she was a total political failure. The former leader sat quietly absorbing the punishment. I almost moved to intervene – the mauling was so one-sided and personally unpleasant. Now it’s clear why Johann couldn’t respond. She was following orders. But how much disrespect and stress is one person expected to take in the name of political leadership – and why?

Apparently she will explain more soon. And surely that is the most extraordinary aspect of the weekend’s revelations. Not just their salacious detail but the fact they’ve been aired in public for all to hear and ponder. That has never been the Labour way. Since New Labour first silenced dissenters to appear electable, dirty washing has been washed in private. No more. This weekend Jack McConnell, Andy Kerr, Henry McLeish and Malcolm Chisholm let rip and sounded more open, animated and alive than they’ve done in years. Of course, most have nothing to lose career-wise, should have piped up far earlier and may simply be legacy-building. But this weekend, it didn’t sound that way. Mr Kerr and Mr McConnell in particular sounded like men who have decided they can no longer deny the existence of a distinctive political culture in Scotland and will now battle openly and confidently with their Westminster “betters” to defend it.

About time – but possibly too late for 2015. Labour has always fared well in Westminster elections by arguing that a vote for anyone else lets the Tories in to No 10. This time round, that argument looks wobbly. Labour’s Better Together dalliance with the Conservatives has tarnished its image. Ed Miliband’s shameful veto on Scottish opposition to the “bedroom tax” has tarnished it further. And the present ConDem coalition has demonstrated that small parties can exert great influence at Westminster. The SNP is well ahead in the polls, may involve others in the wider Yes movement and has ruled out any deal with the Tories. So a vote for the SNP could extract a better deal for Scotland from a minority Labour government and block Trident renewal in 2016. What can Labour offer in return? George Foulkes says Gordon Brown would be the ideal candidate to lead the Scottish Labour Party, though he told Radio Scotland: “I think someone with his stature and background might find it wasn’t something… appropriate for him.”

Er, what? Is the ex-prime minister too special and high-maintenance to be sustained by the thin pickings of Holyrood?

This truly is a make-or-break moment for Scottish Labour. Malcolm Chisholm is quite right to say that if a Westminster MP becomes head of the Scottish Labour Party “a crisis would become a catastrophe”. If New Labour versus Old Labour was an unhealthy dynamic, London Labour versus Scottish Labour could be its death knell. It’s time for Labour to shift to a younger generation – Kezia Dugdale, Jenny Marra and Drew Smith are all capable candidates – and it’s up to the old guard to force the London party to back off.

These younger MSPs are more able to accept the recent seismic changes in Scottish thinking.

I had a phone call from Johann Lamont the morning after the referendum, promising Labour would enthusiastically back progressive proposals on land and local council reform before the 2016 elections. It was a brave, bridge-building call. But it presumed the constitutional dimension of Scottish politics was over and business as usual could now resume. Sadly, it can’t – for reasons best demonstrated by Johann’s own political demise. Power devolved has been power retained for too long. And power retained has led to control-freakery and contempt.

Labour’s dilemma is a mirror of Scotland’s dilemma. The party’s only chance is to invest its own bid for home rule with far more energy and commitment.