In victory, they don’t know how to behave. In resignation, they don’t know how it’s done. In rehab, they get it wrong. Everything that is happening now illustrates and confirms the total failure of the Labour Party in the basic duties of organisation and campaigning.
Anyone who thinks Labour’s travails will be cured by replacing the leader has been asleep for the last seven years. It isn’t a new head Labour needs, it’s a heart.
The payroll brigade utter phrases about the Labour family and ‘what brought them into politics’ and repeat mantras that echoed hollow years ago. Out there in the streets and schemes nobody knows what they are any more. They know they have changed but they’re searching for a handle they can grip to get a feel for the meaning and objectives of a political tribe they once belonged to.
Because Labour stopped speaking to them before 2007, they switched sides and did so with ease four years later and every sign shows that to be an estrangement that is accelerating through maybe 40 per cent deserting the Union cause in the indyref and on to an opinion poll rating barely half the SNP’s.
To head straight into a leadership race based on personalities with the sound and fury that generates is to pretend to address the issue by brushing over the tracks. What Lamont left behind was a stark essay on the dilemma at the heart of Unionist Labour – what is it for…what is its objective…who does it represent…how should it organise itself? To fail to ask these questions – or only air them obliquely in the heat of a campaign – is to remain silent as the clamour grows outside for answers and debate. Sorry to associate them with Labour, you S and G fans, but it reminded me…
And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more.
People talking without speaking,
People hearing without listening,
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence
That is, if you can equate Jackie Baillie with the sound of silence. I have heard her twice now saying Labour is united, no matter which chamber colleagues sit in – they all want the best for Scotland. If so, why are they briefing against each other, undermining each other, attacking each other in the media, going behind Lamont’s back and exposing deep personal, political and territorial differences? If it is so, why is Baillie herself openly disagreeing with Lamont, calling her remarks on the bedroom tax offensive and wrong? This is vacuous and counter-productive pig’s swill. To deny there is a problem and that everyone is united is laughable and falls into the old Labour trap of complacency. The hard truth about too many of Labour’s very limited representatives is that they are accustomed to winning the jackpot at every election without trying. They therefore believe that if you say just about anything and stick a red rose on it, the bulk of punters will just turn up and vote regardless because generationally they know nothing else and are weaned on Tory-hating and Nat-baiting.
For decades this has worked and as a consequence has reared a cynical and conceited breed of machine politician who has abused the trust of working class Scots. To be kind to the bulk of Labour Westminster backbenchers, you would call them mediocre, yet the only real challenge has been to win the nomination in the first place and thereafter a lifetime of salaried oblivion follows – the key requirements being an efficient constituency operation (to do the main work for you) and a craven capacity for obedience.
I think the dash to replace – and therefore bury the memory of – Lamont is a huge strategic mistake. It follows on from the same error in 2007 where the door opened for a full all-member debate on purpose, policy and process in the light of losing power. Instead they failed to confront the truth and we got Iain Gray. To make the same mistake is catastrophic and, historically, unforgivable. It won’t win any seats in the General Election, won’t win the Holyrood campaign in 2016 and won’t produce any new talent.
A leadership race is an attempt at circling the wagons and keeping in-house the festering issues. It ensures that when the question of party autonomy does break out, it will be laden with anger and antipathy between rival camps. As ever, it will get dirty and will produce a titular head with no more powers that Lamont had.
He/she will also carry the burden of election through the discredited electoral college which Scottish Labour itself says should have been abolished.
My own proposal is to appoint as an interim head, a mature and uniting figure who will conduct a full party debate including country tour and open meetings designed to bring in non-members who can be recruited if the message is strong enough. This is where Gordon Brown could properly play a role as conciliator and not commander. Or, if hatchets can be buried, a McConnell or a McLeish. Or Malcolm Chisholm. And let’s hear from the MEPs the best lessons of how parties in Europe organize themselves (mostly separately but in alliance with larger groupings). All MSPs should be on the road following the example of the Yes campaign, hearing the views and listening for a change instead of mentally deleting anything that won’t be acceptable to the Westminster gang.
There is no reason why it could not be a non-Holyrood figure if it is temporary and would allow an aspiring MSP – or even more than one – to speak in the chamber. This arrangement allows a fluidity in which debate and decision can flourish without the fixed and abrasive business of personality politics. It may be that it would also reveal the natural heir through the process of discussion and leave little doubt about who should lead. Does a leader of Scottish Labour have to be in place before the General Election? I don’t see it. They have a leader, Miliband, and the MPs have their own constituencies to contest which in not going to change if there is an elected leader in Scotland. If they could learn to drop their shoulders and relax and let the air in, Labour could find this an invigorating experience.
There is a difference between SNP representatives and Labour’s – the nationalists are bound by a cause more than party but Labour are united by party having lost a cause. The missing mojo must be rediscovered long before some individual emerges to dictate the direction and tone of any recovery.
The mainstream commentators have already fallen into line with the leadership. I heard Paul Hutcheon deriding the idea of ‘internal, interminable debate.’ This is the same shallow thinking that got Labour into this mess, pretending that Who is more important that What and Why.
Even if you don’t want to discuss direction and vision, what makes you think a new leader will solve anything? Jim Murphy for example will deeply divide the whole party as a pro-Trident, anti-benefits Blairite war-apologist out of step with majority opinion in progressive Scotland and would be a gift on the policy front to the SNP. He can organize though and he can manipulate the media as he showed during the campaign where they fell for his victim stunt. I can’t believe at the same time they would think it struck the right note to have a leader from Westminster, the heart of the problem. Murphy is divisive internally too and would create too much resistance to heal any rift. (Odd, isn’t it that the Saviour of the Union Alistair Darling is nowhere to be seen. If Labour want a mature leader to get them through and unite the party surely the Darling of the Tory conference should be their man?)
And let’s remember that while Lamont lit the fuse and in the long run Labour should be grateful, the reason she failed was her own ineptitude. She lacked the talent to lead, failed to show fight in office, chose the wrong advisers, didn’t consult MSPs or party members, got on the wrong side of every argument and repelled support with criticism of popular SNP policy and with jarring and unattractive language. In going immediately in this way, she has left Labour holding the toilet brush. They deserve each other.