Hugh Reilly: Labour has lost its way

Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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Wrongfooted over the whole independence debate, the party of Keir Hardie and Nye Bevan needs to recapture its soul, writes Hugh Reilly

SOME people find it hard to believe I have almost notched up three score years (to be specific, I’m talking about time-rich divorcees who have stumbled across my internet-dating profile where a simple typographical error suggests I am something of a stripling at just 47 years of age). Growing old has its advantages. For example, by dint of a mouth replete with teeth fabricated by dental technicians, toothache and the even greater pain caused by dental bills are a thing of the past. In my long life, I’ve lived to see an actor in a spacesuit walk across a darkened Hollywood studio that spookily resembled a lunar landscape. (Some crackpot conspiracy theorists hilariously believe a man landed on the Moon – as if!)

I’ve witnessed things I never thought possible. I’ve listened as Scottish Labour, the party of – pause for maximum effect – the working man and the vulnerable, has fought passionately for the re-introduction of means-tested benefits, such as prescription charges. In Johann Lamont’s “real world” there is no place for the “something for nothing” brigade, the pinko followers of political pygmies like Aneurin Bevan, who said: “Illness is neither an indulgence for which people have to pay, nor an offence for which they should be penalised, but a misfortune, the cost of which should be shared by the community.”

A Chinese proverb states that “it’s better to be a dog in a peaceful time than a man in a chaotic period”. At the risk of setting back Sino-Anglo relations, I strongly disagree. Like many, I’m enjoying the blood sport of watching the increasingly ludicrous attempts by Labour to staunch the haemorrhage of votes to the Yes camp. Johann Lamont, who in 1997 campaigned against devolution, is suddenly a convert to the so-called devo-max option, whereby Scotland would be responsible for more “wee things” such as key welfare and tax powers.

Douglas Alexander demanded that the party “act boldly”. His rag-tag band of Johnny-come-latelies to the notion of more powers includes the former Scottish secretary Jim Murphy. A man not renowned for his desire to bring about independence-lite, he called for the party’s devolution commission to be “ambitious”.

One can but admire the Labour leadership’s, ahem, “flexibility” on policies. A kind interpretation would be that, having examined all the objective evidence, the party has reached the logical conclusion that devolving more authority to Holyrood will help reduce the present democratic deficit.

However, there will be scurrilous critics who will deride Keir Hardie’s boys and girls for desperately grasping at straws to impede the pro-independence movement’s momentum. Ms Lamont has apparently lost four stones over the past year. More impressively, thanks to her “Just Say Naw” stairheid-rammy performances at First Minister’s Questions, she has shed tons of potential support in just a few months; the Lamont vote-loss programme has resulted in a slimmed down gap between the competing sides, narrowing by ten points since November.

If her ennui-inducing reading of ghost-written lines only cost her floating voters, that would be forgivable. However, when Labour heavyweights are queue-jumping to give her the internecine malky, it must cause some in the party to slurp bottles of Night Nurse before bedtime.

As a consequence of the sheer quantity and quality of Labour stalwarts coming out the closet and declaring themselves to be in favour of independence, Lamont’s newly acquired size 10-12 jacket must be on a shoogly peg.

The latest apostate to throw himself overboard the Greetin’ Helmswoman’s ship is Bob Thomson, a former chairman of Scottish Labour. A party member of 51 years standing, he has nailed his colours to the Yes mast, citing London Labour’s decision to oppose currency union as the reason. His matelots in the pro-sovereignty boat, Labour For Independence (LFI), are noteworthy: Alex Mosson (former lord provost of Glasgow), Sir Charles Gray (ex-leader of Strathclyde Regional Council) and John Mulvey (former leader of Lothian Regional Council).

Anas Sarwar, deputy leader of the Scottish Labour Party, claims LFI is an SNP front. He has his finger on the pulse and refuses to believe that ordinary card-carrying party members are seriously teed off with the direction taken by the leadership. I think it’s outrageous that anyone could dare question the working class credentials of privately educated Mr Sarwar, a man who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with 45 other Labour MPs outside the Commons debating chamber when a vote to repeal the hated Bedroom Tax was defeated 252 to 226. It is probably a source of great comfort to him that recent polls show a mere 20 per cent of Scottish Labour supporters are dissatisfied with Ms Lamont’s leadership. Furthermore, only a quarter of Labour voters do not reject independence outright, a trifling figure Mr Sarwar would doubtless say was within the margin of error.

Despite much of the media’s attempts to stick black and white stetsons atop the heads of the Yes/No campaigns, it’s clear that being pro-independence does not necessarily equate with owning a bedroom poster of a reposing, toga-wearing Alex Salmond, being fed grapes by a voluptuous Nicola Sturgeon.

Labour activists and voters are beginning to waken up to the fact that Lamont’s attacks on universal benefits, her failure to oppose nuclear weapons on the Clyde and her obfuscation on the council tax pose a real problem in a post-referendum Scotland, whatever the result. A once progressive political party should not be seen to be dragged kicking and screaming on the road to accepting fiscal autonomy and control over how Scottish society cares for its most defenceless citizens.

I hope I live long enough to see Scottish Labour recapture its soul.