Saturday, 25 October 2014

Lamenting Lamont

In the lexicon of Labour politics speak, Johann Lamont's resignation from the leadership of Scottish Labour can be found under the entry marked "unhelpful". Yet it does have some company. Nestled next to her action lies the trajectory of Scottish Labour, and the way it is has been treated by the leadership down in London. As Lamont makes clear in her statement, that the general secretary of the party in Scotland was sacked *without* consulting her and apparently in contravention of the rule book too. As is often said of the Trots, how can you take their commitment to socialist democracy seriously then their own organisations are toy town Stalinist dictatorships. Likewise, you can query how strong is Labour's commitment to further Scottish devolution when the leadership tramples on local autonomy and accountability.

I'm not a fully au fait with the ins and outs of Scottish politics, but even from the far distance of sunny Stoke-on-Trent three things stand out. That Johann Lamont's tenure at the helm hasn't been altogether inspiring. That the 'B team' stay at home in Holyrood while the opposite is true of the SNP. That Scottish Labour is facing a growing crisis that could cost the Britain-wide party next year's general election. It stands to reason that a change in personnel and politics is all that can turn the situation around, and, unfortunately, the two cannot be separated.

Consider the Westminster big beasts in the frame. In the purpley Progress corner is Jim Murphy. From an impeccably working class background, he worked his way into Parliament via the NUS bureaucracy, skipping the Oxbridge-spaddery-Westminster route. Jim is also a very active constituency campaigner. If only every Labour MP had his hands-on attitude. Then in the rosy red old Laboury corner is the great clunking fist himself. Gordon Brown had a much better time of the Better Together campaign than did Alastair Darling and, it's probably fair to say this, his standing improved in Scotland at the very moment Labour's ratings have fallen into the toilet. Both men are capable of leading Scottish Labour. Whether they'd want to is one thing - Murphy fancies himself as a future Labour leader, after all. But they will have to take on a left-facing SNP, and there is little in their record that suggests they have the politics to do it.

Ah yes. Much has been made of the SNP's social democratic turn. Whether it's substantive or a skin deep cut of electoral posturing doesn't matter. That was before the referendum. Now it has a genuine centre left leader-in-waiting, and has been flooded with tens of thousands of leftwing supporters. Its policy platform is set to be embedded and consolidated in advance of 2015, barring some unforeseen and unlikely mass disillusionment on the part of its new members. The disaster is Scottish Labour allowed the SNP to roll their Tigers onto its social democratic turf, a catastrophe made all the more perplexing and unnecessary considering Labour has been in opposition for the last four years. Again, it appears from afar that instead rof trying to capitalise on the mild left mood amongst Scottish voters they sought to distance themselves from it. At times it appeared that Lamont - who was the 'left' candidate for the job by the way - was trying to pull off triangulation 1997-stylee, a spectacularly dumb approach to politics when the centre ground is shifting toward the concerns and interests of your core voters. But I refuse to believe this was the case. As Lamont critiques London for treating Scottish Labour like a branch office, the ostrich strategy pursued in Scotland is a likely product of England-centric, or more specifically marginal seat-centric thinking. Tacking left north of the border to prevent a flanking move by the nats would mean the adoption of policies that might scare the horses in the south eastern marginals. What we have is the bitter fruit of clever-clever manoeuvres in which the marginals are by no means a done deal, and the core vote has become the swing vote. Something Ed Miliband used to understand, once.

To be fair, the crisis afflicting Scottish Labour can't just be laid at the feet of the current tenants of One Brewer's Green. It goes back decades. As a formerly safe Labour zone many of its constituency parties have fallen prey to local cliques of self-appointed notables and regional machine politics. The vote has been taken for granted, the members are treated as voting and campaigning fodder - where the latter actually exists. And what it has become is a wizened old husk. It's far from being the incubator of a better politics that it needs to be. Yet that is what it and the rest of the Labour Party has to become, not only to win, but to survive.


Alistair Davidson said...

Aye, you've got it spot on. Lamont wanted to oppose the bedroom tax, and was held back while Ed made up his mind, while the SNP made hay. Scottish Labour attempted to support public sector strikes, but then Ed gave his "These strikes are wrong" interview.

Scottish Labour is a very confused beast. The core of its strength is control of councils in Glasgow and Lanarkshire. It controls these by what Iain Davidson MP calls "Tammany Hall politics."

Community activists like me have been turned against Labour, because their main interest has been in preserving their patronage networks. That lead to such absurdities as Bridget McConnell (Glasgow civil servant and then-First Minister Jack's wife) publicly defending the biggest heroin dealer in Milton and his council-funded community centre, at the behest of council leader Steven Purcell, who ultimately turned out to be a cokehead in hock to gangsters and had to resign.

Labour still went on to win the next council election in Glasgow, basically because the turnout was 30% and the patronage networks can still turn out their core vote, and strongly shape Glasgow's media.

That's the left. In the blue corner, we have the Progress candidates, who have been held off so far - Jack McConnell's attempts to put all council services out to private tender nonwithstanding.

A Progress candidate would be a painful but perhaps necessary move. Tacking left is not an option, so why not drive the SNP out of places like Stirling and Aberdeen? On the other hand, there is no sign that anyone in Labour understands Scotland outside the west central belt.

Meanwhile, in the west central belt, the term "Red Tories" is increasingly in currency.

A right old pickle.

Anonymous said...

NB: The SNP has pitched itself left of Labour since the late 1980s poll tax campaign- it's not anew development, but post-Blair it's been a lot easier. It had its prawn cocktail offensive before becoming SG in 2007 but no longer needs that "credibility" boost.

Lamont was only in the job because so many Labour MSPs were wiped out in 2011. However, there is a real structural political problem between MPs and MSPs which Labour has failed to resolve.

asquith said...

It says it all about London Labour that they apparently labour under the delusion that opposing the bedroom tax is some kind of ultra-Trotskyite thing that will alienate the centre ground.

Only a handful of the sort of people who were kippers before 2009 has ever actually supported the bedroom tax (I opposed it from Day 1, and I'm not even a socialist at all). Most people think it's a woeful idea or have never heard of it at all.

If Miliband and his mates are allowing the "debate" to be utterly fought on Webcameron's terms, why would someone in a one-bedroom flat in Glasgow bother to vote Labour? This is how 1.6 million Yessers were created. They're not all dreaming of a Jacobite restoration, are they? They are just easy prey to the serpentine SNP leadership, as the same demographic in England is to Farrago.

This is the next step in devolution, and that Ruth Davidson should do it as well. It makes no sense in this day and age. They should be allowed to forge different policies on Scotland-related things. There must have been some plan to do this in the event of Scottish seperation. Given that whatever else happens, the pre-1997 days are never coming back, it is what must be reckoned with.

Ceptin' there be structural change, leader or no leader you won't be winning round those embittered Yessers any time soon. I don't know much about Johann Lamont, but even the world's greatest leader could never do the work under those constraints.

Vinyl Miner said...

Jim Murphy looks clear favourite.