Labour of love: Interview with Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont

by Jan 16, 2012 2 Comments

Siding with the Tories is not something that comes naturally to Johann Lamont. Indeed in her usual forthright style, she says that her problem with David Cameron is not that he is English but that he is a Tory.

But neither is it her default position to kowtow to Alex Salmond but the rub is that where she now stands on the issue of an independence referendum and who controls it is critically important for the future not just of Scottish Labour but of Scotland.

Lamont was elected leader of Scottish Labour (and for the first time, that means what it says on the tin) just three weeks ago and has been thrust, without ceremony, into the battle for Britain.

Last week the UK Government fired the starting gun on the independence referendum by announcing that it would bring forward a consultation on the legalities of a referendum.

The political frenzy that followed as the Londonbased media in particular, woke up to the fact that a referendum wasn’t just some pie-in-the-sky idea of the Nationalists but would now become a reality, culminated in a motion being laid down by Lamont in the Scottish Parliament calling for a debate on the issue.

To many observers, arguably, Labour, after five years in opposition, should have led more strongly before on the independence matter but regardless, Lamont equipped herself well during the debate and showed she is more than capable of arguing for Scotland and for the UK Government’s stance that clarity of process is now needed. Importantly, for her and her party, she achieved this without being seen as a Tory collaborator.

She opened the debate with heartfelt oratory about what Scotland means to her. She is one of the few Scottish parliamentarians that can bring that hair standing up on the back of your neck emotion into her speeches.

“This parliament was built to be a means to an end – and that end was social justice. Yet here we are again debating whether the constitution is an end in itself,” she began.

“Scotland is my country. The nation that shaped me, that taught me my values. A nation whose achievements inspired and inspire me, a community whose failings drive my overwhelming desire to fight for social justice and equality.

“And let me say this at the outset of this debate. The commitment of no one in this chamber, or outwith it, to Scotland should be doubted because of their position on the constitutional question. My belief in Scotland remaining in the United Kingdom is because it is my patriotic belief that Scotland’s best interests are served by being in the UK.

“The First Minister once said that he has no problem with those who believe that Scotland being part of the UK is a matter of principle. He therefore can have no problem with me because for me, the principle of cooperation, solidarity and social justice knowing no borders is at the heart of my beliefs.

“I do not question the patriotism of those who believe our nation would be better by withdrawing from the UK and I trust they will not question the patriotism of those of us who believe our interests are best served by continuing in partnership and a strengthened co-operation with our neighbours.

“Similarly, questioning how, and where and why there is injustice in this country is not talking Scotland down but is the first sign of our driving ambition to make our nation better.” Lamont is Labour’s sixth leader in the Scottish Parliament since 1999. She has been an MSP since 1999, held ministerial posts within both Labour/Lib Dem coalitions and has been deputy leader of the party since 2007 and as such, has to admit her part in its devastating political downfall. And so, even before last week, she knew her job would be testing. Leading a party shattered by electoral defeat in 2007 and 2011 was always going to be difficult but with council elections looming in May, European elections in 2013, a general election in 2015 and the Scottish elections in 2016, time to regroup, recharge and rethink direction was never going to be easy. Throw in last week’s constitutional developments and Lamont has had little time to catch her breath, never mind answer the oftasked question – ‘what does Labour in Scotland stand for anymore?’ However, as we sit down on the day that Michael Moore, the Secretary of State for Scotland, makes the official announcement about the UK’s consultation on the independence referendum and amid accusations that Westminster is dictating to Scotland, I wonder if this could help define what Labour in Scotland does stand for, much more obviously than any protracted internal party review and focus-group results.

I suggest that today of all days she must feel quite torn; support a Tory PM in his quest to take some control of the independence referendum or back the SNP FM.

“I suppose I am torn on the issue of having a Tory PM and a nationalist FM but my reading of Scotland is that they don’t like Tories very much and they don’t like independence very much so that kind of battle kind of represents the challenge for us, politically.

“You can see which corners we are all trying to avoid getting painted into. Alex Salmond wants us being defensive and conservative so he can say we are all playing the Tory games and so on and you can see that all play out but if there is a positive argument to be made around cooperation and we will see that, I think, in the Scottish Parliament, whether that is from the Lib Dems or the Tories making a positive argument about the strength of cooperation in these times then we are going to agree with that but we can’t afford to get into a place where the debate becomes whether you are in favour of the Tories or in favour of independence, particularly given that Scotland is not particularly in favour of either.

“I would like to see it as a positive campaign to stay within the UK and actually, I am more than happy to make the case for Scotland to stay inside the UK and I recognise that it is my job as Scottish Labour leader to lead on that but there is a huge challenge which goes beyond political parties which is about Scotland’s future. I want to see the business community, trade unions, civic Scotland and so on engaging in this debate and not to overstate this but people are not that comfortable about saying things publicly at the moment because of the crush that comes down on their heads if they do so. That needs to be opened up and it may be that what has happened in the last few days will prompt that because we now see this is no longer an academic or theoretical thing. This referendum is going to happen and not just because the SNP are saying they want it to happen, so now let’s have a serious debate about it.

“That debate can not be, in my view, simply about us [in the Labour Party] particularly given our situation after the election, saying, ‘right, we didn’t do very well but here I am, as Labour leader, the person that is going to tell you all about the future of Scotland’. We have to create the circumstance so that actually, civic Scotland and beyond take ownership of the debate.

“I have made clear in terms of the referendum that I wanted it earlier rather than later and that the most important issue was that it wasn’t rigged or fixed in any way and that people then have a shared belief in the outcome. It is not in the interests of Alex Salmond that he looks as if he is delaying only in party interest and he hasn’t made a case about why he would delay otherwise but critically, it should be one question because we need to decide ‘do we want to stay in the UK or do we want to leave’.

“We recognise the seriousness of this issue and the challenge is to make sure that it becomes Scotland’s referendum and people come to it with seriousness about that. The initial reaction of the SNP seems to be that they felt this was being imposed on them. They have read that it looks as if this was going to be run from Westminster and I want it run from Scotland, with one question, be fair and be decisive. How can you argue with that? It can’t be that the SNP disagree with that because there would be no logic to that. They don’t want to be told what to do but I don’t think they need to because it is entirely logical for them to have the same position that I have outlined. If it is an open and generous offer to make sure there is decisiveness and clarity about the question, I am not sure how the SNP can be opposed to that.

“The SNP have been in power for five years and have all the preparatory work done and wanted the referendum in 2008, wanted it in 2009 and 2010 so what’s the problem now? Do they fear the judgment of the Scottish people?

Do they not think they can win it?

“The case that has to be made for independence is what is to be gained from it because why would you? We are not in a place where we are oppressed by the English and I don’t need Alex Salmond to liberate me.” For those that ever doubted it, Lamont is no shrinking violet. She is up for this fight and and having done her time in Glasgow Labour politics, she is no stranger to the rough and tumble of political challenges.

Lamont is often misunderstood. She has a reputation for being a fairly abrasive tough cookie and she can be but she is also a rather endearing and complex mix of political experience, humility, self-deprecation and fun, all of which is guided by an acute antenna for social justice. She also has an absolute conviction in the importance of her role as a mother which she extends to all mothers. This directness allows her to call a spade a spade but still be held with some affection for pointing out her own flaws, foibles and limitations while fighting for a higher cause.

This was neatly illustrated during the deputy leadership campaign in 2007 when she arrived at a packed meeting in Glasgow of the party faithful eager to hear her pitch. She looked at the gathered throng and said, ‘I’ve been enjoying going round the country meeting and talking to Labour members and I’ve really been looking forward to this hustings in my home city of Glasgow but now when I look around the room, I’m not so sure as I can see I’ve fallen out with half the audience over the years’. It got a laugh, won the audience over and she got the endorsement she needed.

It is that trick of balancing humility with ambition, along with her political longevity – she has been an MSP since the first Scottish Parliament – that undoubtedly won her the leadership race. She is also comfortable in her own skin which helps when it comes to facing up to Alex Salmond in a chamber that is something of a bear pit. I ask her, given the gargantuan challenges she faces, why she wanted the job.

“You have to look at the challenge, assess whether you can do it or not and then rise to that challenge. I didn’t do it lightly and it is not something I have thought about since I was 20, given that I worked for a living before I came into this job and worked in fact for 20 years.

I have been politically active more than I have been an elected member and so my attitude to politics is shaped by what my politics is about and what brought me into the Labour Party, as opposed to what jobs you can do once you are there and I suppose in the same way that I made the decision to become an elected politician in 1999 rather than stay in teaching, is the same process of asking myself, ‘could I do it?’ and ultimately, I made the decision that yes, I could.

I then critically had to offer myself to the party and it had to make the decision about whether it wanted me as the leader.” I remind Lamont that she told me two years ago that she still found it difficult to describe herself as a politician, never mind being leader. When she was deputy communities minister during a previous administration, she walked into St Andrew’s House for a top-level pow-wow with civil servants and was too embarrassed to tell the security guard who she was ‘because it sounded a bit too high fallutin’, so she mumbled that she was there for a meeting and was told to wait in reception. She then struggled with the socially awkward and escalating situation of not wanting to admit who she was, worrying about the security guard’s feelings, meanwhile panicking about being late for the meeting that she was meant to be leading.

After much self-laceration, she made a whispered phone call to the private secretary upstairs to explain her predicament. He then collected her while the bemused security guard looked on.

This deference is typical of Lamont and the situation happened so often during her tenure that eventually her private secretary accompanied her so that she could introduce her as the minister rather than Lamont herself having to admit to such a lofty position.

I wonder how she now squares that humility with the fact she now runs the party.

“I don’t think there are counter positions in that sense. You don’t need to have a lack of humility to be leader and currently we do need to recognise humility and recognise the scale of the defeat in May and that probably in that defeat there was losing the confidence in people, people not hearing our voice or thinking that we didn’t believe in what we were saying or that we were a party of change so I don’t necessarily think you need to lose your humility to be leader but there is a difference between recognising your place in the order of things and having an honest assessment of your own capabilities and saying, ‘I think I can do this’ but also recognising that it is about a team. Labour is active in all of our communities, in all of the places where there can be elected members and it is pulling that altogether and seeing ourselves as a party and a movement that has representation in different places but what brings us together is not that we are elected members but what brought us into the party in the first place.” Did she take counsel from her family?

“My husband is a political animal and he kept his powder dry, to be honest, until I made a decision and he said I had to think it through.

I was more concerned about the kids because I think there is a horrible underbelly in Scottish politics and because they are alive in the social media they would be more aware of it than I was but they are very interested in politics.

My daughter is very interested in international development issues and my son has a very strong sense of fairness which to be fair, is more about me being unfair to him….so they have got interested in the political debate but had they said they didn’t want me to do it then I wouldn’t have done it.” Could she now see herself as First Minister?

“Oh, I am now caught between humility and conceit,” she laughs. “Look, if you had said to me in 1993 that I would be in this position then no, I would never have imagined it because that is not the way I think politically and I don’t career plan very well and didn’t do succession management, as you call it. I am surprised in the sense that if I think of my life in 1993, could I have imagined myself as a mother of two children not being a teacher anymore and being in this position then, no, but all that tells you is we don’t know what is ahead of us and one of the interesting things about the early days of the first Scottish Parliament was that it was a good day if you only had one crisis – there is a thing about new institutions where change happens quite quickly so why prepare for what you expect when the unexpected is always round the corner. You can’t do this job with the possibility that you are working towards being First Minister without having the confidence that you could do it.

“Be clear, Mandy, I wouldn’t have done the job if I didn’t believe I could do it. I recognise the scale of the problem, I recognise that it won’t be done by the leader alone and there are two huge issues for me which is that we need to get to a place where the people of Scotland are listening to us again and trust what we say and also of us having a capacity for confidence in our own politics and that we are not apologetic for our position because they come from a set of values that took us into the party, that created the Labour movement in the first place. It is also about having a genuine belief that politics is about how you create a strong economy and then how you create social justice from that and challenge inequality. The need for that political voice to be heard is still as strong as ever.” These are fine words but Lamont and I have had many conversations about what happened to Labour in 2007 and why lessons were not learned by the time of the 2011 election. She says now that she doesn’t believe the party actually accepted that the SNP’s ability to form a minority government ever really felt like a victory. That was a mistake, she says, which was then compounded by the 2010 general election result which saw Scottish Labour MPs returned to Westminster with a bigger share of the vote and the belief that voters had returned to them.

The following year the SNP won an historic majority in the Scottish parliamentary elections.

I wonder why she now thinks anything has changed.

“I think there has been a seriousness about the party review which we have conducted and I think the very fact that the party has put me in the position I am in now, which is Scottish leader, is both symbolic but also in practical terms, is a clear recognition of what messages we were getting back from the party about moving forward.

“What happened to us in May was the worstcase scenario so we can’t afford to just put it away, we shouldn’t dwell on it but it has to be a constant reminder, that shock, that sense in which we felt power was so very close – that opportunity that power gives you was so close, and it was closed down to us again in such an overwhelming way.” With the local council elections just four months away, I wonder why anyone should be persuaded to vote Labour this time.

“Because I think Labour’s belief, fundamentally, is how you use power to challenge inequality, to provide services that people need and deserve, to make people feel safe in their own homes, to create economic opportunity for our children and so on and local government is vital in all of that.

“The SNP’s position seems to be that actually, what creates inequality in Scotland is this partnership within the rest of the UK and I don’t think that is true and I think whatever the results of this constitutional debate, the real scar on Scotland, as in large parts of the UK, will be the fact that life chances are determined by the time you are 3. I am not gainsaying the motivation of any individual politician but by definition, if what you are going to do to solve the challenge of inequality is coming out of the UK then I think you have a national identity response to what I think is a different challenge altogether.

“I don’t think the SNP challenge how they spend their money and test budgets against tackling inequality and disadvantage. For example, if you take money out of local government in the way they have done, given that local government has to maintain statutory services, then what you lose are the things like the job I did in education which was supporting kids that were struggling to stay in mainstream education because if you have a straight policy on class sizes then you end up taking out your classroom assistants to fund that.

“I am very concerned about the funding of local government because local government provides such important services and in my own constituency in Glasgow we are seeing the pressure already on care budgets which means that local government needs to manage impossible situations. We need to look in much broader terms [at] how local government is funded because with the council tax freeze and with no alternative being developed, we need to have a mature discussion which is not about finding lines to divide on but actually questioning what is the purpose of local government, what powers should it have and how do we fund it properly to ensure that local services respond to local need.” Given she sees this as a key issue, what is her answer?

“Well, one of our political failures in the run-up to 2011 was that we did not find the alternative that we said we would find on local government funding and we ended up in a place where we recognised that budgets for this year were already set and the council tax freeze was in place and would not go up ahead of an election because quite simply, you would clearly need a mandate to do that. It can’t be acceptable that we are in a place where the Government punishes you if you don’t have a council tax freeze but then you are funding at the same level as you did four years ago – 1,600 jobs stripped out already and huge pressure on local services.

I was genuinely stunned that the SNP said that there would be a council tax freeze for five years; I don’t think it had been costed and I think there are consequences of that but I think the political failure on our part was that we ended up in a place where because we didn’t have an alternative that we were confident in then we ended up in the next logical place which was accepting it, even though we did say it wasn’t sustainable and Iain Gray did look at whether we should be giving councils the authority within a limit to raise council tax.

“Funding local government is a huge issue and we need to find some way to a conclusion. No one wants Local Income Tax and there is such a lack of confidence in council tax but we do know we want to fund local services that gives people dignity in their old age, support children with disabilities and so on and we need a mature discussion around that and I will have that debate inside the party.” But surely, having been in opposition since 2007, wouldn’t that have been a brilliant thing – even a vote winner – to have come up with a solution by now, particularly with the local council elections coming up?

“Well, I did say it was a very significant failure of ours in that period but where we were very successful was in an argument prosecuted against the SNP’s proposed Local Income Tax. This is a bigger issue than just ourselves. We have a rigorous job to do within the party to get our heads around this but I do want to open this debate up much more widely.” Once again, I feel that there is a lot of talk about talks while what the Labour Party in Scotland desperately needs to do is have some action, present a vision, be decisive. Of course, Lamont has only been leader for a matter of weeks but as the events of last week prove, the clock is ticking and arguments should be well on the way to being formulated.

“Of course, people will want more but it has to be thoughtful and as I have said and won’t say it for much longer, we are only talking the beginning of January now and I only was elected as leader on December 17, and there is an issue about coming to terms still with what happened in May and drawing on both the challenge from that and drawing energy from it. Quite frankly, we can’t come out of a defeat in May and just simply produce another package that we have handily prepared earlier; it has to be shaped by what people perceive us to be and what we believe in and then that plays into the broader debate of what we think the future of Scotland should be.

“Some of the things that press on you are by other people’s timescales and timetables. For instance, I didn’t expect, particularly yesterday, to be caught up in the hurly burly about the constitution so there are some things if you are in opposition that are entirely outwith your control.

“It is the big picture; jobs, economy, tackling uncertainty and a proper understanding of people’s fears about losing their house, not being able to be relaxed about their children’s futures and a lot of people are talking to me about their children who are 18, 19, 20, 21 and they worry they are not going to achieve and what the consequences of that will be. Youth unemployment is such a huge issue and … we should all be making that a priority.” But couldn’t she kill two birds with one stone and argue for all those bigger issues while giving a parallel message about what independence might mean for them?

“Well, that will be part of the debate. There is a bit of the SNP that is ‘it doesn’t need to be like this and it will all be fantastic’ and there is a bit of hubris around that that if you disagree with the SNP, you are talking down Scotland and that is entirely unacceptable. I have accepted we lost an election, I have accepted I am not going to be oppositionalist; I have accepted I am going to be positive but I am not going to suspend my critical faculties for the next four years.

“I do have a view of the world, lots of people have a view of the world, which does not agree with the SNP and that can not be conflated into an argument that somehow it is talking down Scotland.

“I think Scotland has great potential inside the UK but some of the debate of the last few days around the constitution has been that you must be against Scotland if you think it is a good idea to have an early referendum. It is just nonsense and an illogical and irrational position to take but what it is trying to do is put people into a box which says you can only be motivated by hostility to Scotland if you disagree with the SNP.

“I have been struck by some of the undergrowth around this debate in that a party that claims to love Scotland and all things Scottish have a very particular loathing for Scots that disagree with them which seems a bit odd to me.”

Mandy Rhodes Mandy Rhodes

Mandy Rhodes is Managing Editor of Holyrood Communications. Mandy is editor of the flagship title Holyrood magazine and responsible for the editorial content of all other associated titles and products. Mandy graduated from StirlingUniversity in the early 1980s with a joint Honours degree in Scottish History and Sociology. She trained on a local newspaper in Wester Hailes and completed her journalism training at Napier University. She has worked for nearly 30 years in journalism in Scotland in newsprint, television and radio broadcasting and was part of the launch team of Scotland on Sunday. She has won numerous awards over the years including PPA Magazine Editor of the Year, Feature Writer of the Year and Columnist of the year. She was social...


  1. Ron Wilson

    Social justice? Don't make me laugh. Social justice means nothing if the powers to effect change are kept by somebody else – it was Labour let us not forget who preferred Thatcher to a sovereign Scottish government, even a Labour government. Fast forward to this week and we have Labour hitching their fortunes to Tory economic policies, with a mute Lamont saying nothing as to the consequences this will have to the poorest in our communities. Scottish Labour is a fraud and deserves to be shown the door.

  2. jafurn

    “Because I think Labour’s belief, fundamentally, is how you use power to challenge inequality,"

    Yes and how is that working out after your last go at it?

    Right there is the reason that Labour will wait a very long time before being allowed back into office.

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