Eddie Barnes: Scottish Labour avoided humiliation in Inverclyde, but needs to reinvent itself to regain power
RELIEF. Pure bloody relief. Labour MSPs, gathering for their last day of business at the Scottish Parliament on Thursday, were feeling extremely apprehensive.
Partly because they feared they might lose the Inverclyde by-election. But also that, if they did, they knew they'd have to come back to Holyrood the following day to watch their SNP tormentors enjoy another success, this time in front of the Queen at the state opening of the Scottish Parliament. In tennis terms, it would have been the political equivalent of Rafa Nadal, having just beaten Andy Murray to a pulp, then mooning at the royal box for good measure.
"We were playing for our jerseys here," said one senior Labour figure the morning after Labour's Iain McKenzie had, in the end, beaten the SNP's Anne McLaughlin comfortably in the Inverclyde by-election. Having won, Labour figures were keen come Friday morning to highlight just how close the race had been - and how their eventual 6,000 majority, in one of their safest seats in the UK, was demonstration of a "fightback". But their nerves in the weeks prior to Thursday's result weren't confected spin. They genuinely were fearful that they could lose. Thus, as MSPs head off for their summer break this weekend, last week's result ensured that Scottish Labour's collective sense of paranoia about the march of the SNP had eased down a notch or two.
The victory was being put down to a combination of factors. In McKenzie they had a well-known local candidate; the political messages on the economy and law and order had been right; and, driven by fear of an unthinkable loss, the party collectively had put in a serious shift to ensure that a seat which lay vacant following the death in May of sitting MP David Cairns, stayed in the red corner. By Friday morning, Labour MPs and MSPs were able to make their first concrete noises of optimism since May's calamity. The size of that defeat in May had ensured that, unlike in 2007, few in the party have been heard in the weeks since arguing that one more heave might have won it.
However, in the wake of Thursday night's result, could there be a temptation within party ranks to assume that normal service has now been resumed? Are Scottish Labour once again going to paper over the cracks? Or is the party really committed to learning its lessons?
First Minister Alex Salmond had offered a characteristically colourful image to describe Scottish Labour's future in the wake of his victory in May. "I suppose it's a bit like the American bison. I dare say we'll still see one of two dotted about, but the great herds of Labour have gone forever."One reading of last week's victory is that, when the bison are based at Westminster, not Holyrood, Salmond's prognosis continues to fall short. After all, only last year, more than one million Scots backed Labour to represent them at Westminster.
But, after May's result, the worry in Labour ranks was that maybe Salmond was right. They fear - rightly - that when it comes to Scottish issues and the business of representing the nation, it is the SNP and not Labour which is far better at holding the middle ground. One senior party source notes: "It pains me to say it but the SNP have positioned themselves as Scotland's patriotic social democratic party." And done it pretty effectively, he might have added. It isn't the fear of independence that worries Scottish Labour at present. It is the fear that confident Scottish Nationalists are making Labour redundant. Most countries, after all, make do perfectly well with just one centre-left party. Why does Scotland need two? From May's election result, it seemed clear voters had decided it was the SNP they wanted to do the job, leaving the Labour party struggling to define itself. "We didn't complete the sentence: vote Scottish Labour because..." says a senior party figure.
Despite last week's result, that concern remains. Consequently, senior party figures were out early on Friday morning to stamp out any notion taking hold that Inverclyde showed May's disaster was in any way a blip which could now be forgotten. The best thing about Thursday evening was that "we didn't add to our problems," says one source. Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander notes: "We must be warriors against complacency. The worst possible reaction would be, well, we had a bad spring, now it is business as usual."
It follows, he adds, that Scottish Labour needs a refit. "Our lost voters need and want us to change," he says.
Party insiders talk of how 2011 in Scotland has parallels with 1992 across the UK, when Neil Kinnock's defeat to John Major made the party realise that fundamental reform was necessary, and gave birth to New Labour. Claims that defeat in May was all down to bad organisation miss the point, say some; the problem was first and foremost a political failure to offer a plan which reflected the country's needs. "The scale of the defeat means we can't avoid what's happened," says one MSP. "We can't just assume that our core vote will carry us through." That core vote, notes one party strategist, is now down to around 26 per cent of the vote. "The days when parties can rely on our core vote are over. The Nationalists know that."
The talk is all of modernisation, change and a reformist New Labour zeal to create a new coalition of voters; of how Scottish Labour needs to get aspiration and win back a reputation for competence as well as compassion. This isn't necessarily about changing core values, so much as "getting the culture right" so that Scottish Labour "looks like modern Scotland". There are others who say Scottish Labour should head for the New Labour centre-ground - with calls, for example, to accept that some tuition fees for students will be necessary. This will not be welcomed by the party's still traditional activist base, say some MPs. "I've had one of my members come up to me saying, what we need to do if we're going to win is say we're going to raise taxes," one says. Meanwhile, as for the constitution, the party's stance was probably best expressed by the absence of any comment on the matter during April's election campaign.
The reform process is being pushed through by an internal review led by shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy and MSP Sarah Boyack, which will consider everything from funding to organisation to personnel, and is expected to publish its findings in October. Only after that will a replacement for Iain Gray, the current Holyrood leader, be found. As we report today, Scotland on Sunday understands that initial soundings have shown strong support for ensuring that whoever replaces him will unequivocally be the Scottish leader of the party. Gray, like all his predecessors post-devolution, is not leader of the Scottish Labour Party, but only leader of the party's Holyrood group. The leader remains, at this point, Ed Miliband. While Miliband said last year that Gray was de facto Scottish leader, MPs and MSPs insist this division of responsibility must now be written in stone.
"The UK leader can have no input into the formation of devolved policies," says Tom Harris, MP for Glasgow South. There are glitches with achieving this though: if for example, Scotland were to elect a new leader, would that necessitate a change in Wales as well? Consequently, the reform was not signed off at a meeting of the review group on Friday night.
Some party figures note that there is no reason why, if a Scottish Labour leader were created, it would have to be an MSP. The candidate could come from the Westminster ranks. Recent history would suggest such a move would open up another spate of tribal warfare between Holyrood and Westminster, which has scarred the party since devolution. But party sources, including some MSPs, now say they are "open-minded" about the idea - the shock of the result in May has confronted them with clear evidence that their turf war may soon run out of turf.
Senior figures do, however, appear to accept that if a new leader were an MP (or an MEP) they would have to make it clear they would be going to Holyrood ahead of the next election in 2016. There is precedent for this: a certain A Salmond did exactly this prior to 2007.
But the big question is who exactly this elusive new leader might be. Within Holyrood, names being mentioned include Eastwood MSP Ken MacIntosh and deputy leader Johann Lamont. MacIntosh, however, is seen as largely untested. Lamont is viewed as a good parliamentary player and intelligent but - as one colleague put it - "she sometimes looks like somebody has just spilled her pint". Health spokeswoman Jackie Baillie has dismissed speculation of her own candidacy.
So narrow is the field that it has been suggested Gray should stay on for another year to allow the new crop of MSPs to bed in, and show whether they have the mettle to take on the job. Consequently, newcomers such as former police chief Graeme Pearson - with eight weeks' experience as a politician behind him - are mentioned as possible contenders. Outside Holyrood, while Murphy and Alexander are the obvious contenders, both are thought unlikely to want the role. Figures such as MP Tom Harris could stand. From outside both Holyrood and Westminster, MEP David Martin is also among names being touted.
One experienced MP insisted, however, that Murphy was the one who should take the job. "He has experience of taking on Salmond (when Murphy was Scottish Secretary]." Party figures lament the fact that the Holyrood group has been "defenestrated" over the years - with former leaders such as Jack McConnell and Wendy Alexander gone, and lost leaders such as Angus MacKay and Susan Deacon no longer in contention. Interestingly, no-one is pointing in the direction of two other well-known figures still sitting on Scottish Labour benches: Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Yet.
The pressing need to sort things out quickly is a factor, with the local government elections next May presenting the SNP with another chance to show that it is the country's national and natural party. Scottish Labour Party chiefs say they need to be patient, in the knowledge that the mood will not turn in their favour overnight, while also going about the business of reform with urgency.
For now, Inverclyde has at least ensured that Scottish Labour's summer hasn't got any worse. The party can now lick its wounds in relative calm. But until there is a new face at the helm, with enough credibility to take on the buoyant SNP and its popular First Minister, it is hard to see how it's going to get much better for Scottish Labour for some time to come.
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