Eddie Barnes: Bright future for Iain Gray

Former Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Former Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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THE former Labour leader has a glowing future ahead of him in the number two position, writes Eddie Barnes

There’s a highly select association in mainstream politics open to a privileged few, known as the Respected Ex-Leaders Society. To join, there is a truly gruelling application process. Members are typically required to go through a humiliating political loss in which they are stripped of their leadership in the most brutal way possible. They must be forced to peer into the abyss.

Stage two of the application process then kicks in. Instead of curling up and giving in, they must dust themselves off, set themselves a fresh target and plough on. Membership soon follows and, with it, an assortment of exclusive benefits. Whereas a cynical public views most politicians as self-interested pole-climbers, members of the RELS, having climbed the pole and fallen off it, are accorded the benefit of the doubt.

Membership also makes things easier internally. They have had their chance and lost it and so are no longer deemed a threat by their successor. Their views are – usually rightly – perceived as holding a wisdom and perspective denied to most.

Which brings us to Iain Gray, the ex-leader of the Scottish Labour Party. Mr Gray, it will be recalled, was the unfortunate victim whose job it was to stand in front of the SNP steamroller in the 2011 Scottish elections. Instead of late-night victory parades, he had to spend election night nervously counting votes in his own seat, which he nearly lost too.

The magnitude of the defeat was hard to take. Mr Gray has spent the intervening time heading up one of the Scottish Parliament’s committees, out of the public eye, but ploughing on. Last week, he re-emerged to the front line, after his successor Johann Lamont appointed him as her shadow finance secretary – in effect, her Number Two.

He now has every chance of becoming a high-flying RELS member. He dealt with his 2011 experience with dignity, took his punishment and is now said by colleagues to be champing at the bit to get going. He does not want his political career to be remembered for an inopportune visit to a sandwich shop in Glasgow.

As other members of the RELS have done – think William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith – he now has the chance to pursue a successful political career on the rung one down from the top.

And what makes his appointment all the more intriguing is that the minister he is shadowing is, of course, another starring RELS member. John Swinney’s leadership of the SNP was fraught and sometimes – as the stress became all too visible – agonising to watch. Like Mr Gray, he went through the bleak experience of having to resign from his job, with little to show but electoral failure. But despite the acrimonious nature of his departure, Mr Swinney picked himself up, stayed loyal and as a respected finance secretary has now reaped the rewards.

These two intelligent, experienced and teak-hard politicians will now go toe to toe. It promises to be one to watch.