Michael Kelly: Without the ability to change – Labour’s lost

'The decline of Labour in Scotland has been a process, not an event'. Picture: Getty
'The decline of Labour in Scotland has been a process, not an event'. Picture: Getty
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LAMONT’S party can easily see off the threat of independence, but winning its way back into power is another matter, writes Michael Kelly

It seems clear to me that the SNP will lose any fairly conducted single question referendum. Despite that fact that two years is a millennium in politics, already the weaknesses of the arguments for separation are being shown to be either threadbare or simply wrong.

Alex Salmond has been forced to back-track on his Oil Fund, defence questions have been left unanswered, the answers on currency and economic control directly contradictory and Nicola Sturgeon’s assertion this week that the Union is bad for the NHS simply laughable. There is also a complete naivety about how she views the behaviour of an independent England. Her recent claim that the Bank of England should allow a representative from this foreign country to sit on its policy board simply because the SNP has now decided that the euro is too risky a punt and is settling for the English pound demonstrates the shocking lack of realpolitik behind her plans. It also shows that the independence on offer is not independence at all.

But while these flaws are apparent to those of us who, despite having our own political views, do scrupulously test the arguments, there is the uneasy feeling that the punters have not yet picked up on how far they are being misled. There is a nervous fear among those who view any declaration of independence as an economic suicide note, that the First Minister’s personality and performance at the crunch end of this debate might carry him to victory.

That is why it is important that the other parties, particularly Labour, contribute effectively to the No campaign. And that is what, I think, last weekend’s Scottish Labour Party Conference was all about. The theme was “change” – change to win the referendum and change to restore Labour to power.

But the rallying cry was made by new leader Johann Lamont, deputy leader in the previously failed line-up. She’s part of the problem not of the solution. Her speech went down extremely well with the party faithful. But that’s because the only change most of them want to see is a return to pre-Blair left-wing positions. MP Douglas Alexander was more credible when he urged change. But when Labour could have used him in Scotland, he decided to stay and play with the big boys in London.

MSP Ken Macintosh was the leadership candidate for change but the trade unions ensured that his strong claim was blocked. When one sees and hears David Miliband this week talking so knowledgeably, one despairs that these same unions insisted that his more left wing, but far less electable, brother lead the UK party. In the same way that Ed Miliband cannot relate to voters, Johann Lamont neither looks nor sounds like the future.

The trade unions will always pose a barrier to getting Labour elected. It is time to recognise that since the 1970s, the unions’ aims have conflicted with the policies Labour needs to win elections. And the gap is growing wider. The most depressing aspect of Unite union leader Len McCluskey’s condoning of strikes during the London Olympics was that, on Labour social networking sites, the majority of contributors supported him.

All this suggests to me that there is no appetite for the kind of brutal change that will make Labour more electable in the UK or in Scotland. Given that, one wonders why Labour has set up yet another commission to look at more powers for Holyrood. They are not going to be exercising them. But worse, it seems a tactical error to be talking about further devolution. No matter what opinion polls currently say about Scots wanting more powers, Unionists should wait until the outcome of the referendum which will indicate how strong a bargaining position they hold.

Johann Lamont has said she will lead Labour’s fight against separation. She could hardly say anything else. But clearly former chancellor Alistair Darling is the man for that job. At least she’s promised him a spot. However, she also said she would find a role for Gordon Brown who, for some reason, still seems to hold a degree of popularity in the party in Scotland. But Brown all his political life avoided taking on Salmond in direct debate. And as he couldn’t handle David Cameron and Nick Clegg, he’ll be eaten alive by the First Minister.

At all levels Labour is blundering through this change agenda. We have just come through the fiasco in Glasgow – a city it is essential that Labour retains. Here party apparatchiks decided to make a clean sweep of existing councillors. They bungled this so badly that not only have they jeopardised Labour’s control in the run-up to May but many wards now have candidates worse than those they have replaced. Yet when you talk to shadow ministers in both parliaments it is they who are asking you who was responsible for this idiocy. Nobody seems to know. The strong leaders of my day would simply have gone up to party headquarters and announced in strong industrial language, “It’s no happening.” Now we’ve got officials from London telling local government candidates to be out at 11 o’clock on Sunday morning knocking doors. There’s a guaranteed vote loser for a start.

Because the arguments for independence are so weak, Labour will be able to turn out sufficient people with the gravitas – Darling, Alexander, Jim Murphy, Macintosh, Anas Sarwar – to contribute effectively to the debate. But as far as repositioning itself into a party capable of winning power at any level, the weekend’s conference demonstrated that it is simply not prepared to face up to the fundamental change needed to produce the vote winning policies. But maybe that was the cunning plan of the first devolutionists – keep Scotland safely within the United Kingdom while allowing the SNP to act as the safely valve for any Scottish frustrations within the bounds of a glorified regional council. Holyrood doesn’t need any more powers to fulfil that function.