A question of leadership
Nothing reveals Johann Lamont’s failure to establish a uniquely Scottish Labour Party than her near silence over the Grangemouth dispute.
And that is a disappointment because it could have all been so very different. This time last year, during her seminal speech on universal benefits, Lamont proudly proclaimed that she may have only been leader for nine months but that she had already learned something about leadership: “You cannot put problems off.”
Well, she has. Her first mistake was in not intervening in the Falkirk vote-rigging debacle, which Holyrood understands was raised with her as far back as January. And her next was to allow Ed Miliband to take charge of what was clearly a Scottish matter and then to be on the back foot when the inquiry was closed with nothing, it seems, to report. The consequence of these two errors compounded with Grangemouth into a collision of circumstances which has led to a humiliating paralysis from a Scottish Labour Party whose very bread and butter should be intervening in a threatened industrial dispute that could have brought Scotland’s energy infrastructure to its knees.
The situation at Grangemouth could have been as catastrophic as the closure of Ravenscraig to Scotland’s industrial base and yet the Labour leadership was absent without leave. And now, with the immediate crisis of closure over but with recriminations still raging, Lamont, predictably, failed to raise the matter directly herself in FMQs. Instead, she chose to suggest, in a throw-away quip on an unrelated matter, that the First Minister had been on a two-week break. That was insulting, not only to the hundreds of people whose jobs would have been lost by a closure at Grangemouth but also to the First Minister, the Finance Secretary and their Westminster counterparts who have spent the last two weeks of the Scottish parliamentary recess tirelessly working to try and find a workable solution to an employment relations catastrophe that was on the brink of falling over the edge of a cliff and taking a major part of Scotland’s industrial infrastructure with it.
There are many wider issues raised by what happened at Grangemouth, not least about management style, modern-day industrial relations, changing working conditions and practices and importantly, why and how such an apparently important part of national infrastructure is, essentially, in the hands of one man. But in a sense, Johann’s inability to speak about these matters is a fault all of her own making because the issue for Johann is that Falkirk and Grangemouth are intertwined. It has become hard to see where Unite the union stopped and Labour began. And that is a problem because the blurring of the two makes it nigh impossible for the Labour leader to talk of one and not of the other so she chooses to retreat into the safety of silence. That is not good enough for Labour, nor is it good enough of a political leader.
Other trade unionists and Labour Party members have told me that Grangemouth feels like a tipping point. They say the bombastic style deployed by Unite has undermined much of the progressive work that they are engaged in quietly and behind the scenes but it has also exposed the leadership to be wanting, both in Unite and in Scottish Labour. They say that Johann Lamont should have stood up to both Unite and Labour over Falkirk and instead she was supine.
And with the common factor in both Falkirk and Grangemouth being Stephen Deans, the Unite union convener, Lamont was hoist by her own petard. How could she speak out against one and not be drawn on the other?
Johann is of course, a Unite member, she won the leadership election based on the support of the unions – her trade union vote was almost double that of her party membership vote – and she is seen as a feisty left winger who will stand up for what she believes to be right. But for whatever reason, she chose not to roll up her sleeves and deal with what was happening in Falkirk and as a result, she has excluded herself from one of the most critical episodes in Scotland’s recent industrial history. That is a stain on Labour and one I am sure she will come to regret.
David Cameron has branded Deans, whose suspension led to the threat of industrial dispute at Grangemouth and subsequently sparked the risk of total closure of the plant, a “rogue operator”. Len McCluskey, the Unite general secretary, has condemned the Prime Minister for what he calls “a disgraceful attack” on Deans. Deans, meanwhile, has resigned from Ineos, just hours before he was due to meet with management over claims that he spent significant amounts of company time working on Labour Party business, including that relating to the issues in Falkirk.
Some would like this matter now to draw to a close but with a cache of around another 1,000 emails handed over to the police allegedly showing Unite bosses conspiring to subvert the original Labour Party investigation, everyone, including Johann Lamont, is calling for a further inquiry. Maybe now, instead of waiting for that to happen from on high or down south, it is time for Lamont to take a lead.