Ruth Wishart: Lamont left with a very hard sell

Should Scotland vote No, Labour will still have a lot of persuading to do to get back into power at Holyrood, writes Ruth Wishart
Johann Lamont, at this weeks Labour Party conference, has several audiences to convince. Picture: Getty ImagesJohann Lamont, at this weeks Labour Party conference, has several audiences to convince. Picture: Getty Images
Johann Lamont, at this weeks Labour Party conference, has several audiences to convince. Picture: Getty Images

The standard cliché for leaders’ conference speeches is they have to appeal to two audiences: the faithful in the hall and the wider voting public. Because that second audience is only offered soundbites (outside of the anorak tendency tuned into live streaming) they also need to ensure sufficiently memorable titbits are sewn through the rhetoric.

Rather less pressurised are the appearances of Scottish party leaders at their UK conference, since only the very, very faithful will be listening, and only selected media outlets will trouble themselves to report a script over which the leaders and their scribbling minions will long have laboured.

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But for Johann Lamont at Brighton, there must also have been the thought this year that, if she wasn’t careful, that orchestrated clip which sounded so smart on paper would come back to bite her where it’s usually most painful. For she is still haunted, and serially taunted, by her dismissive remark that we can’t afford a “something for nothing” society. The point she was presumably intending to make – that made-in-Scotland policies like free tuition fees and prescription charges impact on other spending priorities – is neither novel nor illogical.

Self-evidently, if you’re easing life’s path for Paul, Peter may be shortchanged at some point. But by choosing the language of Cameron and Duncan Smith, language now inextricably linked in many minds to the unacceptable face of Conservatism, she has learned the hard way that party leaders can find it all too easy to commit semantic suicide.

However, Lamont’s most important audiences reside in her own party, and they run to more than two. There are her Westminster MPs, still smarting at the thought of her up there having any jurisdiction over them. Some of them are irrelevant to the referendum debate in as much as their visceral opposition to any more devolution, let alone independence, has more resemblance to turkeys resolutely determined not to vote for Christmas.

Then there are those in both London and Scotland who view any alteration to the constitutional arrangements through the prism of their long-standing and visceral opposition to anything which might give comfort to their sworn enemy, aka Alex’s army.

And there is yet another strand of Scottish Labour which has concluded that independence will deliver for them and have been loudly trashed for saying so.

In the midst of all of which, the more thoughtful Scots among Labour’s hierarchy acknowledge privately and publicly that if the No camp should prevail, they can’t leave constructing an election gameplan until 19 September.

Douglas Alexander’s recent Edinburgh lecture tacitly said as much, where he suggested a national convention embracing the public as well as the politicos to determine Scotland’s future. The obvious problem with which is that conventions, like royal commissions, are usually dismissed as handy long grass into which you kick awkward balls.

But he knows, as must Johann Lamont, that if the No camp does triumph a year from now, the status quo will be a hard sell to the Scottish electorate, regardless of where they plighted their cross, and an implausible route back to power in Holyrood.

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They know too that the “jam tomorrow” pitch will fall on pretty sceptical ears given the result of its last outing in the 1970s. But, for the moment at least, they are joined at the hip to two other parties and the chances of Better Together offering pledges in blood for more powers are not high.

A hard sell too will be a front-bench team, some of whom are retreads and some of whom struggle to be household names in their own household. The loss of talent like Margaret Curran and Cathy Jamieson, who threw in their lot with Westminster, and of other experienced hands in the 2011 cull, has left Lamont with an impoverished shadow team with few big-hitters.

One of them, Jackie Baillie, suffered an nasty accident when clogged by her own side last week. Conscious of the widespread hostility to the bedroom tax, and needled by serial suggestions that Labour was a policy-free zone on the subject, she said that her party did in fact intend to abolish it, and that an announcement would follow shortly. In fact, what followed very shortly was her being hung out to dry by her UK party hierarchy, despite the fact that Ed Miliband has subsequently made exactly that promise. Jackie’s crime was not to be wrong, but to be presumptuous enough to speak before being spoken to.

For team Miliband is yet another audience to be considered by Johann Lamont, and it is not a team with, ahem, an intimate knowledge of the Scottish political landscape.

Scotland is a different planet from the country which regained its parliament in 1999, and some folks in London, including many prominent Scots, are still looking at it through the wrong telescope.

If she hopes to counter the SNP battle-cry that Scottish priorities must be determined by the people who live and work in Scotland, then Lamont’s counter-offer must at least be predicated on Scottish Labour determining Scottish Labour’s priorities. Not least since many in her natural constituency have concluded that the UK Labour Party has become a pinker shade of red, if not actually a lighter shade of blue.

Murdo Fraser knew that internal party devolution was crucial for the Scottish Tories, too, when he made his ill-fated attempt to win the Conservative leadership from Ruth Davidson, whilst the Scottish Liberal Democrats, once the proud standard-bearers of a federal UK, seem to have lost their appetite for promoting self-determination.

It is an odd, but not idle, thought that the Scottish general election should have only been held a bare eight months after the referendum. Its postponement came thanks to Westminster also plumping for a fixed term and just not noticing 2015 was already taken. And not bothering to inquire.

• Lesley Riddoch is away