There is no denying that whoever wins the Scottish Labour leadership contest is taking on a big job.
In no particular order, the leader has to get the party fit and ready for the local government elections in 2012, to avoid a demolition derby led by the SNP. Although I do think that STV – ironically – will save many Labour skins. Sadly, the ones who will survive will be the weel kent names, the ancients who have made a very comfy living out of being a cooncillor and who have achieved diddly squat for their constituents and communities. They will hold on at the expense of new faces who might have brought about change and fresh thinking.
There are all the recommendations from the Review in terms of restructuring and re-organising the party internally. These take up time and a lot of energy. Doesn’t matter that they are a good idea, they threaten fiefdoms, and are likely to met with spirited resistance from some quarters.
And then there’s the day to day politics, and the need (in my opinion) to come up with a coherent narrative of constructive opposition that all MSPs and MPs can buy into. So that Labour starts to resemble a political force rather than a ragbag of rent a quotes on any given topic. A key part of this will be bridge-building between the Holyrood and Westminster groups to end the impression given that they currently occupy different political planets. Team Scotland, with its 12 Scottish Labour MPs, could be a real boon here, unless tribalism and hierarchy triumphs. The fact that Margaret Curran is now heidie of the team might mitigate against this, given that she has actually been in both camps.
But there’s also the biggie – what does Scottish Labour do about the prospect/threat (delete as appropriate) of an independence referendum? At the moment, a majority of Scots want a debate about far-reaching constitutional change. That’s what they voted for in May. Not sure if we want what you want, SNP, but we’d like to give you a chance to set out your stall, without having it watered down or deflected by the other parties. On the day to day stuff, they ain’t offering nothing that you aren’t, and we like the cut of your jib. Here you go, have a majority, sell it to us.
And since May, a series of polls have confirmed that most Scots want some form of far-reaching constitutional change. They want Scotland to do more things for itself. Just now, a majority favour devo-max or indie-lite: having control of nearly everything domestic, leaving the big things to be determined on an island wide basis, not quite cutting the ties completely. But the more the Scots see of the Con Dems in action, the more inclined they are to think we’d be better off doing things our own way.
It’s a simplistic analysis but it kinda works, for me anyway.
So where does Labour stand in all this? Out in the cold, with their noses pressed against the glass, frankly.
One of the key observations I made at SNP conference – as their first ever accredited blogger, by the way – was how little any of the SNP’s big hitters talked about Labour in their speeches. In fact, the only one to spend any time on them at all was John Swinney. And that was deliberate. He’s in charge of local government and the SNP’s biggest opponent in that arena is the Labour party. He was winding up his party’s activists for another long winter of campaigning: go out there and wipe them off the municipal map, finish off the job started in May and “let’s bring to an end the last vestige of Labour failure in Scotland”.
But he also focused them in his sights on the economic stuff. Not at Holyrood but at Westminster. This was also deliberate, to keep on reminding the Scots who got us into this mess in the first place, and to be able to highlight the Scottish Government’s budgetary competency compared to the basketcase that was UK Labour’s. It’s all part of the plan.
The Depute First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, in her speech made only three direct references to Labour – to have a pop at Jim Murphy, to criticise their failure to support minimum pricing and to meet hospital waiting times. And that’s it. She even had the audacity to quote Nye Bevan as “the founding father of our health service”, without saying he was one of Labour’s greatest politicians.
And the First Minister did even better. Two paltry mentions they got, one poking fun at them for their PR system failing to prevent the SNP for achieving a majority at Holyrood, the second emphasising their lack of fitness to govern in Scotland.
In a few short months, Labour has been airbrushed out of existence in Scottish politics. Which given the party’s near omnipotence a few short years ago, is truly remarkable.
They are being treated by the SNP and the Scottish Government as an irritating sideshow. The party knows that in order to drive an independence wedge between Scotland and the UK, the negative side of the argument – look what we’ll get if we stay put – has to be trained on the UK Government and helpfully, given the Scots’ innate distrust and dislike of the Tories, the fact that the ConDems are behaving just as we always suspected they might, is making their job easy. They are capable of making the positive case of the benefits of independence all on their own, in a way the Scottish electorate responds to.
And until Labour has something of value to contribute to the debate, they will be ignored. They are not an immediate electoral threat, they are resorting to old and tired tactics already, and are leaderless and rudderless. They can bleat all they like at Westminster and Holyrood: no one is listening. Nine years out of power in Scotland? Make that fourteen.
To date, the three contenders for the Scottish Labour leadership haven’t really grasped the nettle. It’s not about the number of questions, or who gets to vote, or the need to stop the SNP in its tracks or to keep everything in the constitutional garden growing as it was. The first are petty details that no one, bar the political anoraks, are interested in. The latter is utterly out of kilter with the wishes of the Scottish people. Until and unless Scottish Labour works out that Holyrood is going to get a big wodge of powers, it will have nothing constructive to contribute to the debate. And that suits the SNP very well. Worse, Labour cannot escape its worst instincts, to carp and criticise what the SNP is doing in governing Scotland on the day to day stuff, and to scaremonger to almost laughable proportions.
There are however, signs of green shoots. Douglas Alexander’s lecture last month showed he gets it – shame no one can persuade him to stand for the leadership. And Jackie Baillie is doing a good job at Holyrood, in highlighting failings in the NHS under the SNP and manoeuvring the terms of debate on key issues rather successfully.
But so far, Labour is lacking a strategic focus and purpose, and consequently tactically, the SNP has dismissed its threat to its grand scheme of change.
If Labour doesn’t want to be left behind in the service station, as Scotland motors speedily and confidently towards its constitutional destination, it needs to get some petrol in its tank and fast.