Andrew Whitaker: Labour big beasts face extinction

Douglas Alexander and Jim Murphy could lose their seats is polling is correct about the SNP. Picture: John Devlin
Douglas Alexander and Jim Murphy could lose their seats is polling is correct about the SNP. Picture: John Devlin
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THE party must focus its efforts to challenge the SNP’s vow for a strong Scottish voice in Westminster, writes Andrew Whitaker

The SNP’s central election campaign message, of how the return of a hefty block of nationalist MPs on 7 May would mean a “stronger” Scotland with a powerful voice for Scots at Westminster, looks like it could sweep almost all before it next week.

Douglas Alexander offers the prospect of a Scottish voice in a UK Cabinet

It’s hard to imagine a scenario now where the SNP will emerge with anything less than 40-plus MPs, with Scottish Labour reduced to a rump and the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats facing the prospect of a wipe-out.

The SNP’s opinion poll lead now looks unassailable and Labour strategists will know that the party has been too many points adrift for too long for their to be any realistic prospect of a reprieve.

But despite the inevitability of an SNP landslide in Scotland, Labour might still be able to stop the Nationalists taking out “big beasts” such as Jim Murphy in East Renfrewshire and shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander in Paisley and Renfrewshire South.

Clearly it’s too late for an overall proper political turnaround for Scottish Labour – that would have even been beyond even self-styled “Comeback Kid” former American president Bill Clinton, who managed on numerous occasions to grasp victory from the jaws of defeat.

But in the eight days left of the campaign, Labour could still call out the SNP on its central campaign message of how 40-plus Nationalist MPs in the Commons would be such a “strong voice” for Scotland by forcing Westminster to sit up and take notice and make key concessions, the like of which have never seen before.

Scottish Labour would perhaps do well then to concentrate some of its resources on attempting to salvage the seats of big hitters such as Mr Alexander.

Surely Labour could even now still make the case that having a Scottish MP serving as foreign secretary in Ed Miliband’s Cabinet would also be a “strong voice” for Scotland? Mr Alexander, the head of Labour’s UK campaign – which has so far been more effective than that of the Tories, with Mr Miliband faring better than many had expected – would be a hugely influential figure in any Labour government should he defy the odds and retain his own seat.

As an interesting aside now with the opinion polls showing Labour still very much in the game at UK level, even if not in Scotland, there could well be an ironic outcome where the politician who masterminds his party’s election win ends up losing his own seat.

Such a blow was dealt to the then Conservative Party chairman Chris Patten, who oversaw his party’s unexpected comfortable election victory in 1992, but lost his own seat in Bath to the Liberal Democrats.

But should Mr Alexander manage to cling on and be returned as part of a smallish band of Scottish Labour MPs, it’s highly likely that he will be Mr Miliband’s foreign secretary, should the party win next week.

Labour could, during the closing stages of the campaign, plausibly argue that having a Scottish MP as foreign secretary offers a potentially more influential voice for the country at Westminster than a bulked-up bloc of backbench SNP MPs ever would.

The arguments and endless speculation about the prospect of the SNP helping to sustain a minority Labour government in power have been done to death now, and there are various scenarios that could play out.

It may well be that somewhere down the road Mr Miliband, in the event that he leads a minority government, may have to come to some accommodation with SNP MPs to stave off the prospect of a Tory return and with it turbo-charged austerity.

But for now Mr Miliband, should he emerge as head of a minority government on 7 May, appears to be content to call the SNP’s bluff by challenging it to back his party in key Commons votes or risk allowing the Tories to govern – something that the Nationalists know they could not sell to Scots.

While it would be absurd to suggest that the election of 40-plus SNP MPs would be anything other than a historic victory for the party, it’s possible the Nationalists may not end up being anything like as influential as billed.

The SNP has no real prospect of holding ministerial office at UK level, leaving its MPs instead left to serve on House of Commons select committees, which in truth exercise negligible influence.

Could Labour perhaps successfully contrast that level of influence for the SNP with the sort that Mr Alexander could exercise as foreign secretary?

Scottish Labour giants of yesteryear such as John Smith were condemned to years on the opposition benches, with the late Labour leader serving just six months as a Cabinet minister at the fag-end of James Callaghan’s government in the late 1970s.

Mr Smith, in his final words from his final speech the night before he died, in May 1994, talked about “a chance to serve, that is all we ask”.

Perhaps it’s worth imagining for a moment what arguments he would have used against a highly effective SNP political machine decisively winning the campaign war with a message about why its candidates would be the loudest voice for Scotland at Westminster.

Surely Mr Smith would have been quick to point out that there could well be a Cabinet with no MPs at all from Scottish constituencies if the Conservatives win on 7 May, with the possibility of David Cameron’s party losing its only seat north of the Border.

Even Scottish-born Tories such as Aberdonian Michael Gove, who has in the past sought to promote himself as a voice for Scotland at the Cabinet table, has represented a constituency in Surrey in the last parliaments.

Perhaps Mr Smith, were he potentially little over a week away from high office, would have made a last-ditch attempt to fight the SNP by pointing out that the only likely prospect of a Scottish MPs having a voice at the Cabinet table is under Labour, with the Lib Dems in freefall and its Scottish MPs unlikely to have a second act in government (or even at Westminster).

Of course, Labour would be accused of desperation by the SNP if it made such points, but the party would not be completely wrong to suggest that Mr Alexander offers one of the genuine prospects of an authentic Scottish voice in a UK Cabinet, for good or ill.