Euan McColm: Labour knocking on dead wood while SNP striking a match

DURING the campaign for the first Scottish Parliamentary election, Labour candidates had a favourite taunt for their SNP rivals.

DURING the campaign for the first Scottish Parliamentary election, Labour candidates had a favourite taunt for their SNP rivals.

Dominant in the Scotland of 1999, Labour made a specific point of barring members from standing for election in constituencies as well as on the regional lists from which 56 of Holyrood’s 129 members are elected. It was to be strictly one or the other.

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The Nationalists – resigned to defeat in first-past-the-post in cities and across central Scotland – adopted a belt and braces approach, allowing their constituency candidates the security of list places.

These arrangements, perfectly sensible as they were, were just too much for ­Labour to resist. They jeered that Nationalists were cowards – or worse – amateurs. The idea that the likes of Nicola Sturgeon, say, needed the security of a place in the Glasgow list was proof that these weren’t proper politicians. If you couldn’t win a constituency, you were second class.

Labour held list members in contempt throughout the first session of the parliament and used the same attacks before the 2003 election when, yet again, the Nationalists depended on the election of MSPs through the proportional representation system to create something that vaguely resembled an opposition group.

And then Scottish politics flipped on its head. In 2007, SNP members won some significant victories – the aforementioned Sturgeon’s in Glasgow Govan, being just one – on the way to forming their first, minority, government.

Labour took badly to this and began a period of depressive introspection that allowed the SNP to rattle through those first four years in charge without much in the way of opposition distraction. By the 2011 election, Labour’s stubborn refusal to let candidates (bar two, given special dispensation because of boundary changes) stand in constituencies and on lists, simultaneously, bit the party on the backside, hard.

Effective, experienced MSP after effective, experienced MSP was swept aside by the SNP’s landslide. Former cabinet Ministers Andy Kerr and Tom McCabe – both potential party leaders – were toppled. David Whitton, once right-hand man to the late first first minister Donald Dewar, was encouraged by voters to seek other opportunities. Even Labour’s then leader Iain Gray came within around 500 votes of having to find a new day job.

This rout didn’t just see Labour lose powerful parliamentary performers. It had a second consequence. Makeweights, selected for regional lists from which they were not expected to be elected, found themselves not only in Holyrood but left to rebuild a party which – in Scottish Parliamentary terms – was devastated.

How the SNP laughed at Labour’s misery. What hubris had led them to this low. And then the SNP had a look around its own back benches, and stopped laughing. Just as the 2011 result left Labour with elected members some party officials didn’t even know, it left the Nationalists with a bunch of constituency MSPs whose success was equally unexpected.

As they start to look tentatively ­towards the 2016 election, both the SNP and ­Labour have started to confront the ­uncomfortable truth that both have their share of under-performing, uninspiring MSPs. Labour’s response, in particular, seems baffling.

The party finally changed its rules to ­allow candidates to stand in constituencies and lists. But it has also agreed to protect the list places of those already elected in the regions.

I could have seen the sense in changing the rules before the party lost a fistful of talents, but by doing so now, Labour gives its accidental MSPs power they’re only ­going to use to protect their interests. With re-election almost guaranteed, these members have real power in their constituencies. This protection of their list positions assists the less talented in building dynasties (dimnasties, anyone?). The likes of Kerr, McCabe or Whitton, even if they wanted to return to Holyrood, would struggle to get the nominations they’d need.

Labour’s timing on this rule change, designed to protect the most talented, has ended up securing the tenures of a number of MSPs who could not set ­heather alight with a can of hairspray and a box of matches. And a lighter. And petrol. On the other side of Constitution Street, SNP officials are alive to the fact that their own benches are speckled with non-starters. The Nationalists’ talent crisis is nowhere near as great as Labour’s for they retained their experienced front bench in the last election. And majority government takes the heat off too. It’s easy not to care too much about stray idiots when every parliamentary vote is in the bag.

But the Nationalists have offered no guarantee of protection to new members. Those in whom the party’s senior politicians see potential enjoy a spot of light mentoring from the Sturgeons and Swinneys. But others (if only they knew) are already being painted out of the picture.

Success, being an attractive sort of thing, has brought a steady stream of new blood to the SNP. There are now more than 22,000 card-carrying members, compared with fewer than 10,000 less than a decade ago. And they’re not all foot soldiers. Are Nationalist officials talent spotting to ensure every winnable seat has the best possible candidate? Of course they are. And if that means skewering a hapless sitting member or six, will they do it? You’re darn tootin’, they will.

This, with all its cold calculation, seems smarter than Labour’s response to the problem of how to deal with underperforming politicians. The SNP, having recognised a talent deficiency in the ranks, is taking positive steps to encourage better candidates to step up.

Scottish Labour, having recognised the same problem, has merely compounded its misery by lumbering itself – and us – with too many MSPs who’d still be watching daytime telly in their jim-jams if it hadn’t been for the Salmond effect in 2011.

Twitter: @euanmccolm