Euan McColm: Labour infighting suits nationalists

Ken Macintosh will be running against Kezia Dugale to become Scottish Labour leader. Picture: John Devlin
Ken Macintosh will be running against Kezia Dugale to become Scottish Labour leader. Picture: John Devlin
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LAST-minute squabble over Labour crown just plays into hands of the nationalists, writes Euan McColm

WISE political commentators know better than to make predictions with any certainty. It’s so much safer to say, well, on the one hand this and on the other hand that and, at the end of the day, only time will tell.

But I make no claim of wisdom, so let me say with complete certainty that Kezia Dugdale will be the next leader of the Scottish Labour Party. When the current incumbent, Jim Murphy, steps down next month, his deputy will step up. It should be a straightforward enough process. Scottish Labour has few options and the likeable, clever Dugdale is the obvious choice. She fulfils this role by some considerable margin.

Yet, because this is Labour and if Labour can do something to make things difficult for Labour then Lab­our will, the process of Dugdale’s elevation will, inevitably, do yet more damage to her party.

Ken Macintosh has been Labour MSP for Eastwood – an affluent constituency that covers much of the same area as the East Renfrewshire seat lost by Jim Murphy in the general election – since 1999. You may be forgiven for not knowing this because Macintosh has conspicuously failed to make his mark on Scottish politics for the past 16 years.

But he’s about to make his mark now.

Macintosh has announced he will challenge for the Scottish Labour leadership, a bold move for a politician with a track record of mediocrity and one failed attempt to win the top job already behind him (Macintosh lost out in 2011 to Johann Lamont). Of course, the MSP for Eastwood is perfectly entitled to take a second stab at becoming Scottish Labour’s next leader to retire in failure, but the manner in which he is going about it seems destined to make life even more difficult for colleagues already clinging to their sanity after a series of kickings at the polls.

A peculiarly destructive thing that Scottish Labour politicians like to 
do is to complain in public about their colleagues. Just last year, ­Johann Lam­ont resigned, claiming that her job had been made impossible by interference by colleagues in London. Scottish Labour was treated like a branch office, she said, and soon everyone knew because the SNP issued a helpful press release quoting her.

When Murphy began the month-long descent towards his sword last month, announcing that he would leave in June, he lashed out at the head of the Unite trade union, Len McCluskey. This was right up the SNP’s street and they were soon talking about Labour infighting (though, in fairness to Murphy, McCluskey, who seems to think he runs the Lab­our Party, was asking for it).

Last week, Macintosh took the novel step of making his complaints about the party in advance of becoming leader (which, remember, he won’t).

He complained on BBC Radio Scotland that Labour’s “party machine” was bullying his supporters in an attempt to avoid a leadership contest. In the SNP press office, a new file was opened.

Macintosh’s allegation was certainly serious but, forgive my scepticism, it was rather weakened by the fact that Scottish Labour doesn’t appear to have a “party machine”. If it did then perhaps it wouldn’t be in the godawful state it now is.

But of more interest, I think, than this bullying allegation (which may or may not be accurate) was Macintosh’s defence of some of his fellow MSPs.

Murphy is writing a report for Scottish Labour in which he will make a number of recommendations for the party to take forward. He is expected to propose that the next leader is elected through a one-member-one-vote system, rather than by the current electoral colleges set-up that gives the unions considerable muscle. Beyond that, he is expected to call for the party to re-select candidates.

Currently, those Scottish Labour MSPs who made it to Holyrood via the regional list system, decided by a proportional representation ballot, have their positions on those lists protected. This means that those at the top of the lists are pretty much guaranteed to be re-elected next year.

The problem for Labour is that most of its best candidates stood in constituencies in 2011 and lost. The list MSPs were compensation for constituency wipeout. And many of those who made it were – and remain – distinctly second rate.

Macintosh is cross about the very suggestion that any of his colleagues could be considered below par and, thus, has secured the support of a number of those with protected places.

In contrast, Dugdale is said to be very keen on re-opening the lists and trying both to find new candidates and promote existing ones who might have a bit about them.

The two candidates for Scottish Lab­our leadership have begun the campaign by clashing over the calibre of existing MSPs. It’s messy stuff and can only become more acrimonious as the ballot to choose Murphy’s successor draws closer.

A particularly strange aspect of Macintosh’s approach is that he, himself, is not a list candidate for next year’s election. Given that Murphy lost pretty much the same constituency a few weeks back, the chances of Macintosh winning Eastwood next year are poor and, if he does end up losing, then he’ll have no list place to fall back on. Should his rival win, at least Macintosh would have a chance of getting on the West of Scotland list and finding his way back to Holyrood. As it is, his pitch to parliamentary duds appears to be “take my hand and we’ll all drown together”.

There is considerable frustration with Macintosh among the majority of his Holyrood colleagues right now. They would much prefer he had not put himself forward. They would like this transition between leaders to have been quick, clean, and as uncontroversial as possible. After all, when Dugdale does take over, there will have to be more blood on the carpets as she begins overseeing candidate re-selection.

But by launching a doomed bid for glory, Macintosh has guaranteed yet more headlines about Scottish Lab­our infighting, which will reflect real and unnecessary tensions. The SNP must be delighted. «