Euan McColm: Labour must lure its best storyteller

WHAT makes a successful political party? Asks Euan McColm

Labour Leader Ed Miliband with Scottish Leader Johann Lamont. Picture: JP
Labour Leader Ed Miliband with Scottish Leader Johann Lamont. Picture: JP
Labour Leader Ed Miliband with Scottish Leader Johann Lamont. Picture: JP

Good, clever, hard-working people, obviously. They help. And policies too. A political party requires a decent slate of those.

But while people and policies are fundamental, they’re all but worthless without the single most crucial thing that a successful party needs: a compelling story.

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We can always spot a political party that doesn’t have a decent story. For one thing, those parties tend to expend a lot of energy asserting that everything their opponents say is nothing but spin. And they always say that people don’t care about personalities, which is because a party without a story inevitably lacks a storyteller.

The SNP has been telling the same successful story since Alex Salmond returned for his second stint as leader in 2004. Two years after that, Scots started to listen and bought into a big, bold Scottish nationalist narrative about ambition and success. The SNP’s “be part of better” – as read by Salmond – was a bestseller, while Scottish Labour’s “best small country in the world” languished in the bargain bin.

A decade after Salmond returned to frontline politics, his Labour opponents continue to struggle to find a story to grip the imagination. It is recognition of this fact among some members which lies behind current instability in the party.

Rumoured tensions between leader Johann Lamont and her deputy, the MP Anas Sarwar, were given credence when it emerged that she had sent him off – out of harm’s way – on Labour’s referendum campaign bus, where he’d be troubled less by debate and more by having his photo taken with inconvenienced punters in a variety of obscure Scottish towns (and if Sarwar has been round your way, I mean all those other places he’s been to, of course).

A few days after that, Sarwar gave an interview in which he was asked the – quite easy – question: “Will Johann Lamont lead Scottish Labour into the 2016 Holyrood election?” Sarwar’s intriguing answer was that Johann Lamont was currently the party’s leader. As ringing endorsements go, it was short on endorsement.

So it seems relations at the top of the party are strained.

The reasons are straightforward. Simply, Sarwar is ambitious and (quite correctly, I think) believes Lamont is unlikely to lead Labour to Holyrood victory in two years’ time, even if Salmond’s dream of Scottish independence is extinguished by a No vote in this September’s referendum, while Lamont thinks Sarwar is all ambition and (quite correctly, I think) feels he lacks substance.

The story circulating among Labour members is that Sarwar wants to find a running mate and pitch for the leadership before the referendum day dust has settled. Having won this contest, he would leave Westminster for Holyrood in the hope of becoming First Minister in May 2016. The very thought that Sarwar might fancy a crack at the top job has led others in Labour to tell a different story. And, perhaps, this one might be worth hearing.

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Some in the party believe that the solution to Scottish Labour’s problems may lie with the MP Jim Murphy, now shadow International Development Secretary and formerly, during Gordon Brown’s premiership, Secretary of State for Scotland.

Murphy is a substantial figure; perhaps not as sharp on policy as fellow MP Douglas Alexander, but Scottish Labour’s strongest communicator.

Intriguingly, the party appears to have created a set of circumstances which might allow a big hitter to move from Westminster to Holyrood. Scottish Labour has postponed, until after next year’s general election, the procedure where those candidates on the regional lists are ranked. In theory, Murphy or Sarwar could make the transition fairly painlessly.

Should a Westminster MP decide (and perhaps a Labour defeat to the Tories next year would concentrate minds) to stand for Holyrood, then they would be in a strong position to secure a high place on a list. Should an exceptional candidate emerge, then a safe constituency seat could be finagled, perhaps through a “promotion” to the Lords for a sitting MSP.

Those in Labour who favour a Murphy leadership are taking certain things for granted, not least that he would actually wish to pursue this course. Were I a member of the Labour Party, I’d be among those trying to persuade him.

Labour needs new policies of course, and it has to continue to promote its (few) talented newer MSPs such as Jenny Marra, Kezia Dugdale and Drew Smith. But what it really needs is someone who can tell – and be the central character in – a new story.

Some close to Salmond concede that when Murphy was Scottish Secretary, the First Minister found him an impressive opponent. It helped that Murphy, unlike some of his colleagues, is not intimidated by the leader of the SNP.

Scottish Labour’s is a tired old story which meanders along, punctured by moments of pathos and unintentional comedy. Anyone who believes that Johann Lamont is going to change that now (after three years in charge) is either mad or deluded. Or both.

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Lamont is cleverer than her opponents might have you believe. She’s smart enough to know that she faces likely defeat in 2016. But she became leader of her party out of a sense of duty. Had she not stood, then Ken Macintosh would have been leader and Labour would have been very much further up the creek in which it finds itself, bereft of paddles.

There is a sense among some in the party that Lamont would be tempted to go before 2016 if Labour could come up with a more appealing offer for voters. She is, say colleagues, supremely self-aware. And she has read all the polls which show Labour has a long way to go before Holyrood victory is a viable possibility.

Of course, Lamont and Murphy are hardly pals so this theoretical change of command would not be expected to run smoothly.

But Scottish Labour with a big hitter like Murphy at the helm and a bright rising star like Jenny Marra as deputy seems like a decent enough pitch to voters who, until the party finds a new story to tell, seem likely to ask for another chapter from the book of Salmond. «

Twitter: @euanmccolm