Scottish politics can be cruel. By rights, the party that kept the devolution flame burning during the dark days of Tory rule and delivered it on returning to government in 1997 ought to be reaping the electoral benefits. Instead, the Scottish Labour Party is apparently unelectable, unpopular and demoralized. In short, it wasn’t supposed to work out like this.
To an extent, Labour in Scotland is in – ironically – a similar frame of mind as the UK Conservatives were after 1997. Shocked by being out of office for the first time in decades, the Tories failed to take stock and complacently assumed they would be back in government as soon as the British people came to their senses.
Another defeat in 2001 didn’t seem to alter that mindset; only a hat trick of rejection in 2005 forced the natural party of government to come to its senses.
Similarly, Scottish Labour’s reaction to its narrow defeat at the 2007 Holyrood election was indignant disbelief. Imperfect leader followed imperfect leader, while internal party reform and policy renewal was ducked and delayed. A second, much heavier, defeat last year appears to have kicked some life into a once energetic party, but it remains in the middle phase of its recovery. Local government elections this May are unlikely to offer any respite.
Perhaps Johann Lamont is the Scottish Labour’s Michael Howard, a solid, capable yet unflashy skipper at the helm who will enable her crew to figure out what the hell to do. Three months into the job, she is benefitting from low expectations. Many Labour-watchers, and indeed Labour MSPs, expected a car crash, but in fact Lamont has performed respectably at First Minister’s Question Time, and in the media generally.
“She’s quick on her feet, has a sharp tongue and is very self-deprecating,” says one senior Labour source. “She comes across as being decent, which she is. On the constitution, Johann’s temperamentally in the right place.
Her background is in Scottish Labour Action [a small “n” nationalist grouping in the 1980s]; she wants more power for the Parliament but doesn’t consider herself to be a unionist. In other words, she’s where a lot of the public are, favouring neither independence nor the status quo.” When it comes to Scottish Labour’s domestic agenda, however, Lamont is still to make significant progress beyond positions and policies inherited from her predecessors. “There’s no indication of where Johann’s going to position the party,” says the source. Indicators of this are obvious, mainly the party’s stance on knife crime, the Council Tax freeze and university tuition fees, all of which caused problems during last May’s election campaign.
“She’s opening up space,” says the source, “but it’s still not clear where she stands.” Local government finance is one area where Lamont might conceivably carve a niche for her party. Indefinitely freezing what the SNP claim is an “unfair” tax simply isn’t sustainable.
Scottish Labour could make that case, pointing out that an endless freeze is regressive while advocating a re-evaluation that would spread the burden more fairly and put councils on a sounder founding. Although politically risky, it could even put the SNP in the difficult position of defending the status quo (having shelved plans for a local income tax).
Even were that sort of approach to succeed, Lamont has other challenges. Although much was made of her status as the first proper Scottish Labour “leader”, rather than the organizational quirk that rendered her predecessors mere leaders of the party “in the Scottish Parliament”, the theoretical extent of her authority is illusory. Westminster big beasts like Jim Murphy and Douglas Alexander, meanwhile, continue to do their own thing in London.
Alistair Darling’s recent intervention advocating full devolution of income tax to the Scottish Parliament was a good example.
Frustrated by lack of progress at getting an alternative Labour narrative in place, the former Chancellor sought to create some momentum.
And although Lamont wouldn’t necessarily disagree with the detail of what Darling proposed, that it didn’t emanate from her laid bare the Labour Party’s byzantine leadership structure.
Yet interminable debate about the independence referendum also provides Lamont with an opportunity to make her mark and do something bold, the perfect context in which to dump some messy policies, work on others – like Council Tax reform – that have caused problems in the past, and generally take calculated risks. Structurally, for example, Labour’s HQ could be shifted East, although Lamont shows little inclination to disrupt the party’s historic seat of power in Glasgow.
This conference, Lamont’s first as leader, ought to be a platform for that sort of creative approach. “If Johann stands up in Dundee and tells a bit of her own story, she could make an impression,” says the Labour source. “It’s also an opportunity to junk some stuff and create political problems for the SNP; after all, this is where – postreferendum – Labour will win or lose.” In other words, Lamont has to play the long game; and if she pulls it off, history might just be a little kinder to early 21st century Scottish Labour.