Johann Lamont missed her chance to make an impact when the First Minister made a big mistake during the Grangemouth debacle, writes Michael Kelly
It’s rare to see Alex Salmond look so deflated. And no wonder. His economic arguments for independence have just suffered their worst week ever. It’s not so much the plethora of expert reports pointing to the black hole in his calculations and the incompatibility of his various promises. He cannot deliver them all and so faces unpalatable choices. It’s an oil fund or universal benefits, tax rises or cuts in public services, increased borrowing or laughably weak armed forces. It’s the conclusion demanded by a resort to the facts and any serious analysis of the situation
Nationalists will continue to reject these objective and rational conclusions. Instead they will counter with their bogus and misleading propaganda. The latest attempt to clean up their hard drive of obfuscation came from the UK Statistics Authority which this week found that the Nats’ paper on pensions in a separate Scotland was based on selective statistical evidence to support its case – just like every other aspect of their argument.
Reports can always be argued against by those seeking, not the truth, but to muddy the waters. Often slick presentation can obscure the paucity of the case. And, as we are talking about the future state of Scotland’s economy and predictions as to how it will perform in hypothetical circumstances, there will always a degree of uncertainty about predictions.
What will not be wiped from voters’ minds, however, is the Grangemouth debacle. There is the evidence in grim words and revealing pictures that Scotland’s economy depends on its position within the UK. Such was the First Minister’s relief at the fact that the Treasury saved the plant that he made one of his rare political gaffs: He acknowledged the truth – that the result had been achieved by everyone “pulling together”. That’s the No case in a phrase.
Salmond then went on brazenly to demand that no one should drag Grangemouth and the impotence of Scotland to save it into the constitutional debate. This comes from the man who, during all his years in power, has been determined to make everything – from waving the Saltire in the Royal Box at Wimbledon to opposing UK nuclear energy policy – about independence.
Now, when an issue arises that torpedoes his case, we’re not to talk about it. It’s not going to work like that. Not that voters will need much reminding. The shock generated by Grangemouth is burned on their souls. Independence is a goner.
In the light of the growing disillusionment with the idea, it may be already time to re-evaluate the First Minster as a politician. He is given credit for being the most effective of his generation. Yet increasingly his decision to postpone the referendum as far into his term of office as possible looks like a fatal error. If he were ever going to secure a Yes vote it would have been while he was still basking in his astounding Holyrood landslide. But, just as Gordon Brown was unwilling to risk his premiership in its early months by calling an election that he might have won, Salmond shied away from the referendum, preferring years of power instead. Like Brown’s it was strategically the wrong decision, as any chance of victory diminished with the passing months. Emotion might have counted back then. Now it is heads, not hearts, which will decide next year’s vote.
In the light of Salmond’s discomfiture it is disheartening to watch Johann Lamont’s performance. Before, during and after Grangemouth the Labour leader said absolutely nothing – not a word. This was surely the opportunity for the leader of the opposition to impose herself on the political scene.
Yet we have no idea what her position was. A strong Labour leader would have had a clear grasp of the situation at Ineos and the authority to have urged its workers to ignore the bad advice from their union and to accept the company’s offer. She should have been condemning the union for pursuing a political agenda instead of looking after its members’ interests. If she had followed that line look how strong she would appear today.
Instead, she was absent from a debate. Even yesterday when invited to comment on the resignation of Stephen Deans, the Unite union convener at the heart of both the Falkirk selection process and the industrial dispute at Grangemouth, Lamont refused to become involved. Little wonder. She holds her position as Labour leader in Scotland by the grace and favour of the trade unions. They have been berating her for not adopting an even more left wing stance. For whatever reason, she refused to condemn Unite’s activities in Falkirk or the blunders it made at Grangemouth. She counted herself out of the most important economic and political issue of the year. It is by creating such vacuums that Labour has, time and again, left the field entirely to Salmond. This was an issue he lost. Sadly, the Labour leadership played no part in diminishing him.
This lack of fight will fortunately have little adverse impact on the campaign in the run-up to the referendum, or its result. Alistair Darling, not Johann Lamont, will be Alex Salmond’s main antagonist. But looking beyond the expected rejection of independence, Labour should be planning to win the next Scottish election, especially if more powers are devolved. To do that it must convince the electorate that it represents the interests of ordinary working people, not those of the unions which are trying to reassert a stranglehold on the party. That needs effective and visible leadership.
Johann Lamont is a person of sound social ethics. If she is to have the chance to convert her principles into policy she must determinedly overcome the belief that being elected on union votes she must be in thrall to them forever. She has missed her best opportunity to imprint her profile on the Scottish electorate. But she must recover the position as soon as possible, otherwise Labour’s feckless performance in Scotland will continue and its only hope will be Salmond shooting himself in the foot again.