‘London called shots’ during Johann Lamont tenure

Ed Miliband prepares to embrace Johann Lamont at the Scottish Labour Party conference in March. Picture: PA
Ed Miliband prepares to embrace Johann Lamont at the Scottish Labour Party conference in March. Picture: PA
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WHEN Johann Lamont was elected leader of the Scottish Labour Party she was not so much achieving a great ambition as fulfilling what she felt was a personal obligation.

The SNP had wiped out almost all of Labour’s frontbenchers in the 2011 Holyrood landslide and credible candidates to replace departing leader Iain Gray were scarce.

Three politicians – Lamont, Eastwood MSP Ken Macintosh, and Glasgow Cathcart MP Tom Harris – stepped forward.

In victory, Lamont was regarded by colleagues as the best of a bad lot, the least worst option.

Having been elected, Lamont was promised greater ­power than any of her predecessors, all of whom had technically been leader of the Labour group at Holyrood, not leader of Scottish Labour as a whole. With responsibility for all aspects of the party in Scotland, Lamont would have the authority to shape the party as she saw fit, even if that meant sometimes choosing a different path to the one taken by colleagues at Westminster.

Lamont, a former English teacher who had served as a junior minister in Jack McConnell’s Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition, was quite clear on winning the leadership that she expected all members, including MPs, to respect her authority.

Certainly, she was technically in charge, but it was always going to take a lot for the likes of Gordon Brown or Jim Murphy to defer to the MSP for Pollok.

Lamont was elected Scottish Labour leader in December 2011 and the following March announced her intention to establish a commission to examine the extent to which powers might be devolved to the Scottish Parliament.

It was an early sign she fully intended to make use of her powers. But, behind the scenes, trouble was already brewing.

Among those approached as potential members of this commission was the Glasgow University Professor of International Law, Adam Tomkins. He was contacted by shadow secretary of state for Scotland, Margaret Curran, who had been close to Lamont for more than 30 years.

Friends of Tomkins say he was initially keen to advise the commission but grew concerned it would be a stitch-up and that any dissenting voices or radical suggestions would be quashed. In the end, Labour stopped calling Tomkins, who was then approached by the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, and invited to become involved in the Tories’ work on new powers. Having secured agreement that he would not be expected to follow a party line, Tomkins agreed, and now is one of the Conservatives’ representatives on Lord Smith’s commission on devolution for Holyrood.

The commission didn’t report until March of this year and, when it did, the proposals were scrappy, muddled and hedged. Lamont struggled to answer simple questions about a plan to give greater tax varying powers to Holyrood. Her instinct, friends suggested, was to go further, but she had been restrained by colleagues at Westminster who were sceptical about a more powerful Holyrood.

Lamont recognised that the SNP had won two consecutive Scottish Parliament elections with policies – such as the council tax freeze and free prescriptions – that brought with them a considerable cost to public services.

Her call, in September 2012, for a debate on universal benefits was further evidence that Lamont was willing to tackle big issues. But she was so politically weak at the time that she simply didn’t have the authority to lead such a debate. The SNP caricatured her as a politician dedicated to seizing from the people that which was rightfully theirs.

A friend of Lamont says: “Johann was dead right to say we should have been debating that stuff. Parties couldn’t just go into election after election trying to outbid each other with freebies. It’s not sustainable.

“But Alex Salmond was totally dominant and Johann couldn’t get things up and running. In the end, she tried to do the right thing and it harmed her politically.”

Quite how much authority Lamont held in the Scottish Labour Party was called into question again in 2013 as scandal engulfed the selection of a candidate to replace sitting Falkirk MP Eric Joyce, who had resigned from Labour after a number of brushes with the law. Allegations were levelled that the Unite union had tried to rig the candidate selection process. On paper, ­Lamont may have had responsibility for all Labour matters in Scotland but the investigation into allegations of wrongdoing was overseen by officials in London.

The Labour inquiry was abandoned after witnesses withdrew evidence.

Rather than playing a driving role in this investigation, Lamont was reduced to urging Ed Miliband to re-examine the affair.

The camel’s back-breaking straw fell last week when Ed Miliband decided to remove Labour’s Scottish general secretary, Ian Price, without consulting the Scottish leader.

A source close to Lamont said: “A call came through from one of Ed’s people to one of Johann’s people. He passed on the news about Ian Price and Johann’s guy said, ‘I assume this means you want Johann to resign?’.

“The guy from Ed’s office said, ‘No, of course not,’ but he just didn’t get it. He didn’t get the fact that Johann had been completely undermined.”

Friends of Lamont say that as long as a year ago, she began making indiscreet remarks about wanting to leave the leadership. One Labour source said: “You would be at an event and her heart wasn’t in it and she’d say as much. She just looked exhausted by the whole experience.”

Lamont decided to resign after four days of what friends describe as constant negative briefing. Events leading up to Lamont’s decision would appear to have seriously damaged – if not destroyed – her friendship with Curran.

Friends of Lamont say that Curran called her on Monday to offer support and urge her to stay on as leader before undermining her in discussions with colleagues.

One source said: “Margaret was friendly to Johann’s face but behind her back she was dripping poison in the ears of the members of the Scottish Executive Committee.”

Sources close to Curran deny this version of events. A friend said: “Margaret absolutely hasn’t been lobbying anyone to put pressure on Johann. She simply spoke with members of the Executive Committee to gauge opinions.”

Regardless of what went on behind the scenes during the last days of Lamont’s leadership, her mind was made up on Thursday night and she shared her decision with two members of her staff.

Lamont proceeded with a scheduled policy meeting in Glasgow on Friday morning with MPs Douglas Alexander and Anas Sarwar, and MSP Paul Martin. Curran joined the discussion by phone. During the meeting, Lamont made no mention of her planned resignation.

Having bid her colleagues farewell, Lamont proceeded straight to the offices of the Daily Record to give the interview in which she would announce her decision to go.

A friend of Lamont said: “When she’d made up her mind, she was angry but also a bit relieved. She had done her best and been treated appallingly.”

But others in the Scottish Labour Party take a different, less sympathetic view.

One party insider said: “Johann can blame this and she can blame that, but the thing about being a leader is that you get on and lead.

“Politics is a tough game and you need to show some authority. When did Johann do that?

“She can say she was undermined if that makes her feel better, but she went for the leadership and then didn’t know what to do with it when she won.”