A scam that's too clever by half

Observations on Scottish Labour

Devolution has been a difficult experience for large parts of Scotland. The Scottish Labour Party, for long the political establishment north of the border, has had to come to terms with sharing power in the Scottish Parliament with the Lib Dems. To Scots Labour MPs at Westminster in particular, this is the equivalent of selling out. It is not about principles, more the application of power. In the Scottish Parliament, all six parties are minorities; at Westminster, out of Scotland's total of 72 MPs, 55 are Labour, on a mere 43 per cent of the vote.

Westminster Labour MPs, accustomed to a culture of one-party rule, have never come to terms with Labour being a minority north of the border. Ever since the first devolution elections, with little to do and time on their hands, they have been suggesting ways to reassert Labour's dominance. The latest and most ingenuous comes from Ian Davidson, MP for Glasgow Pollok and once a Labour right-wing hatchet man on Glasgow City Council.

Scots cast two votes in their parliamentary elections. The first, as at Westminster, elects a constituency MSP on a first-past-the-post basis. The second determines the share of parliamentary seats for each party. (The extra seats are filled by "list MSPs".) Labour's problem is that, because it is over-represented among constituency MSPs (indeed has the clear majority of them), it gets few of the "list MSPs" (four out of 56 last time) and many people don't even bother to support the party on the second vote. This is why Labour needs a coalition to govern.

Davidson's idea is that Labour stand on the second vote as the Co-operative Party. This would be legal with the Electoral Commission, as the Co-op is a separate political party. In the style of the Polish Peasants' Party, which was a disguise for Communist Party rule, the Co-op would be refloated as a front party for the re-establishment of Labour one-party rule.

The only problem is that it may not quite deliver what Davidson intends. Labour's support in Scotland has now fallen so low (34.6 per cent of the first vote and 29.3 per cent of the second last year) that it could still end up with only 16 "list MSPs", giving a total of 62 - three short of an overall majority. It is just possible that, after such a scam, all the other parties would then gang together and exclude Labour from government.

Gerry Hassan co-authored The Political

Guide to Modern Scotland (Politico's, £20)

This article first appeared in the 03 May 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Religion: Why do we still give a damn?