Andrew Whitaker: Lamont has made Scottish Labour respectable

Johann Lamont: Attacked SNP. Picture: Jane Barlow
Johann Lamont: Attacked SNP. Picture: Jane Barlow
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SCOTTISH Labour meets today for the opening day of its annual conference, nearly two years after the party’s disastrous election defeat at the hands of the SNP.

Johann Lamont was handed easily the most difficult job in Scottish politics when she narrowly defeated rival Ken Macintosh in the leadership election at the end of 2011.

As the party faithful gather in Inverness this weekend, Ms Lamont can reflect on what has for the most part been a successful opening to her tenure as Labour leader.

More often than not, Ms Lamont has had the slight edge over Alex Salmond in the weekly joust of Holyrood’s First Minister’s questions.

She also presided over a good set of local elections for Labour, with the party emerging as the dominant force on more authorities than the SNP and holding off a nationalist challenge in Glasgow.

Ms Lamont has also managed to land a few punches on Mr Salmond over issues such as the SNP’s perceived inability to answer key questions on an independent Scotland’s place in Europe and retention of the pound.

And she has already established herself as a much more effective Labour opposition leader than either of her predecessors – Iain Gray and Wendy Alexander – and to a large extent has succeeded in stopping her party slide further into oblivion.

In short, Ms Lamont has made Labour at Holyrood respectable again and less of the laughing stock than the ravaged party that emerged from heavy defeat in 2011.

So Labour under Ms Lamont is respectable, but is it electable?

The dramatic policy shift announced by Ms Lamont last autumn, when Labour launched a commission to examine ending free services such as free NHS prescriptions and free university tuition could yet cast a shadow over her leadership.

By accepting a largely Tory suggestion that society can no longer afford generously funded public services, Labour opens itself up to being outflanked from the left by the SNP.

The SNP managed to attack Labour from the left at both the 2007 and 2011 elections on these issues, while also appealing to the right with its stance on cuts to business taxes and with the party’s flagship council tax freeze.

It’s hard to see how Labour could win an election if, for example, the party opts to include the end of free prescriptions in its manifesto or the end of free university tuition.

The SNP would be quick to point out that patients south of the Border can pay as much as £7.85 for one medicine.

Even if the SNP is weakened by the loss of the independence referendum, offering to keep such costs from Scots could be enough to win it a third term.

Ms Lamont already faces an uphill struggle to overturn the SNP’s huge Holyrood majority over Labour at the next election and it’s hard to see how pursuing a Blairite-style approach to public services will help with that task.