Euan McColm: Lamont’s silence on Falkirk will speak volumes

Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont. Picture: Greg MacVean
Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont. Picture: Greg MacVean
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IT WAS an excruciating – and illuminating – moment.

Just moments after being announced as the winner of the race to become Scottish Labour leader, Iain Gray was put firmly in his place. During his brief victory speech, Gray had spoken of his powerful mandate: he wasn’t just concerned with corralling colleagues in the Scottish Parliament, he was ready to take control of party matters across the country.

This was news to then Scottish Secretary Des Browne, who quickly reminded assembled reporters that Gray was no more than boss of Labour’s group of MSPs. The message to the victor was clear – don’t get ideas above your station, sonny.

But that was in the dark ages of 2008. When Johann Lamont was named Gray’s successor three years later, things had changed. Following a review of party structures, she could genuinely claim to hold the power of a national political leader. All who had gone before – from Donald Dewar through to Gray – had only ever been in charge of the party’s Holyrood group. Lamont, with authority over every member in the country, was the first real leader of Scottish Labour.

This may be news to you if you’ve been following the scandal in Falkirk, where allegations of membership scams and union stitch-ups have led to police being summoned. Not only has Lamont failed to display any leadership during the crisis, she’s failed to do anything at all. I’m beginning to wonder if that Scottish leader thing was more spin than reality. Why, it’s almost as if she has no authority whatsoever.

From the minute this scandal broke, with reports several weeks ago alleging that members of the Unite union were being signed up to the local party without their knowledge in a bid to rig the contest to find a candidate to succeed disgraced sitting MP Eric Joyce, Lamont seems to have been out of the loop.

Initial concerns about abuse of process in Falkirk weren’t taken to Lamont, but to Ed Miliband, the party’s UK leader. It was from London that an investigation into the matter was ordered. And it was in London this week that a decision to involve Scottish police was taken. At no point has the Scottish Labour leader appeared to be leading on this matter.

There is an argument, I suppose, that Lamont might be wise to keep out of this. It’s a sleazy scandal that could yet do for Miliband’s leadership (yes, I know he’s talking tough, but the fact he owes his position to Unite leaves a lingering stink) and a desire to keep the head down would be understandable. But Lamont has more to lose than to gain by her silence.

There were two reasons for the change in party structures which – in theory – made Lamont the leader of all things Labour in Scotland. First, the party had lived through a dozen miserable years of turf war between MSPs and MPs. Sniping – by and large directed from Westminster to Holyrood – had caused already difficult relationships to break down, completely. Ego-fuelled infighting does not happy campaigning make, so it made sense to redraw the lines of command, giving the Scottish leader real power.

Second, the lack of authority of Labour’s Holyrood leader was a gift to the SNP. The nationalists’ taunt of “London Labour” was effective because it hit on a painful truth: when it came to policies, to campaigns, to any decision at all, Labour in Scotland required the approval of Labour in England.

This state of affairs stood in stark, and miserable, contrast to the SNP’s pitch that it took its orders from the Scottish people rather than from Westminster MPs who had little interest in – or understanding of – the Scottish Parliament.

The SNP used this line to great effect in 2007, when Alex Salmond marched the nationalists to Holyrood victory. The SNP leader may have been spinning a line but – although he may not have realised it at the time – relations between Labour MPs and MSPs had reached a low. Tensions spilled over, factions were created (in the final weeks before polling day, three distinct groups representing Scottish party staff, MSPs and MPs seemed more intent on battling each other than in taking on Salmond’s surging nationalists), and those “London Labour” taunts were more true than any of the party’s opponents might then have imagined.

Lamont’s silence breathes life into those old lines of SNP attack while Labour’s defence of her absence on the Falkirk row puts meat on their bones.

We’re told she has been consulted on the issue in Falkirk but, as the selection of Westminster candidates is carried out under rules laid down by the UK Labour party, she has no locus. That’s a pitifully weak line. When Lamont was elected leader of Scottish Labour, we were told to be in no doubt that she was fully in charge of her party north of the Border. If it is the case that Lamont is to be considered the “boss” of Scottish Labour MPs, then she should be in the thick of this now, being seen to act, being seen to lead.

It might just help that Lamont’s no-nonsense style is suited to a situation such as this. On Friday, Miliband said he was “incredibly angry” about what had happened in Falkirk, all the while looking and sounding anything but “incredibly angry”.

Lamont, on the other hand, does fury rather better than her boss (or colleague, depending on who you’re speaking to in the Labour Party) and she should have reacted to the Falkirk scandal promptly and vocally.

Rather than this appearing to be a case of “London Labour” messing things up, it could have been a case of Scottish Labour cleaning things up. It’s too late for that, now. Lamont has missed her window of opportunity. That’s a gift to her opponents who’re already dusting off those old barbs about London calling the shots.

Lamont may be able to point to a section of the Labour rule book that says that’s not the case. But her silence on the Falkirk scandal tells a different story. «

Twitter: @euanmccolm