Michael Kelly: The internal fight is over, now for the real battle

Johann Lamont. Picture: Neil Hanna
Johann Lamont. Picture: Neil Hanna
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Johann Lamont won a Scottish Labour turf war, now she must show the public that the party has a mind and policies of its own, writes Michael Kelly

The little local difficulty that occurred this week at the Labour Party’s Scottish headquarters in Glasgow need not be a sign that the party has years of turmoil before it. Nor does it suggest the beginning of a period of debilitating power struggles. The turmoil is over: the power struggle has been won. By Johann Lamont.

Lamont was not my choice as Scottish Labour leader, yet I am the first to acknowledge that, so far, she has been a great success in standing up to the hitherto invincible Alex Salmond. Particularly at First Minster’s Questions.

She has exposed the leader of the SNP as a politician unable and unwilling to give straight answers to direct questions as to his vision of post-independence Scotland. On Nato, the EU, the currency, and the management of fiscal and monetary policy, SNP claims have been exposed as built on sand. She led the fightback in the local elections in May.

And she has done all this despite the enormous stumbling blocks that were the full-time Labour officials in John Smith House in Glasgow. The senior officials there appointed by London who had contracts of employment from the capital. Their first loyalty was, naturally, to the UK party rather than Holyrood. They followed Westminster agendas and were known to listen to the views of MPs rather than MSPs.

Ever since she was elected leader, Lamont has attempted to change their focus. She did this through private negotiations, hoping for a quiet transition to avoid adverse publicity. Unfortunately, given the issues and the personalities involved, this proved impossible and the issues were brought to a head with the suspension of one senior employee.

Now general secretary Colin Smyth has gone, many of us wondered how he survived the SNP landslide last year. Given the need to get the party back on track for the referendum it seemed ludicrous he continued in a part-time role while devoting so much time to his duties as a councillor in Dumfries. At least he resigned saying all the right things, though the battle was savage.

More ambiguous is the position of Rami Okasha, head of communications. He was campaign co-ordinator for the last Holyrood election – a Labour humiliation. He is suspended. The bone of contention apparently is his rights under his London contract. While the party is confident it has the better of the argument, as in all employment issues there must be a degree of uncertainty. A quick resolution is essential to avoid a running sore.

Labour MSPs are delighted with the outcome of this long battle. One senior party member referred to the changes as “the removal of two handbrakes” on Lamont’s initiatives.

When questioned about the policy and strategic changes that could be expected to follow, senior figures are refer to “a fresh start” and “a clean sheet of paper”. Already, constituency Labour parties are being rejigged to reflect Holyrood, rather than Westminster. New ways of funding the impoverished party will come and people with fresh ideas will be recruited to suit the modern outlook Lamont seeks – the new general secretary will not be one of the usual party hacks.

Before, it was a case of “This is how the party runs. Get on with it”. Now it is hoped a professional manager with his own ideas of how things should be run efficiently can be found.

Such a person will be expensive, but with the highest salaries at nearly £70,000 per annum, cost should be no barrier. It is hoped he or she will make the workings of the Scottish party HQ less opaque to politicians and party members alike.

Although a presence will endure in Glasgow, the power base will shift to Edinburgh – as it should. The leader must have daily access to HQ from her parliamentary office.

As important as all this is, the main change must see the development of policies which, while reaffirming traditional Labour values, differentiate it clearly from the SNP.

Many strategists within the party believe this is not the time in the electoral cycle for these. Phase one was to establish Lamont as leader. Discrediting the SNP’s threadbare policies was necessary to prove that Labour could compete.

“Now that we are back on the field,” one policymaker disclosed, “a programme will be developed and announced.” It is thought to be too early for that. For one, the SNP will just pinch the best ideas and for another, with the public’s short attention span, details will be long forgotten by the time of the referendum, never mind the next Holyrood election. The fact there will no longer be any internal obstruction will simplify the process and lead to policies more in tune with public opinion. Johann Lamont will not have Iain Grey’s nightmare, when he tried to develop policies to suit his style and philosophy.

However, in my view, commentators have made too much of Labour’s disconnect with voters and its need to explain its role in a devolved Scotland. May’s local government elections gave a clear indication that Labour has not lost its heartlands – a view reinforced by the booing of the Great Leader in Glasgow last week. That must have come as a bit of a shock to one who had been, for a long time, Scotland’s most popular politician.

It has now become clear to much of the electorate that voting SNP has not resulted in a defence of Scotland from ruthless Tory cuts. Rather, it has meant a long constitutional wrangle. And calls for unionists to spell out the kind of union they want in the “no” campaign is just another inducement to wander down an academic cul-de-sac. It stems from the total inability of the separatists to make their case.

While any apparent discord within Labour can give opponents succour and weaken internal morale such effects are limited to the interested few. The general public rarely gets excited unless there is continuing evidence of deep splits.

Johann Lamont has lanced a boil with her decisive moves to sort the party. The consequential changes and appointments must emphasise the unifying nature of her agenda.