Former Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont during the independence referendum campaign. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The fall of the reluctant leader: the inside story of Scottish Labour's crisis

Even those inured to the gang warfare that periodically engulfs the party are stunned by the events of the last week. 

On Friday 17 October, Ed Miliband’s chief of staff, Tim Livesey, phoned Johann Lamont, and informed her that the Scottish Labour general secretary, Ian Price, was no longer in his position. The opening shot in what would be her final week as party leader had been fired. Enraged that Price had been driven out without Lamont’s consent, an aide told Miliband’s team that it had made her look “ridiculous” and that her position was now “untenable”. To this, the response came that this was not the intention and that Miliband wanted her to remain in place.

It was several days later that Lamont’s team concluded it had been lied to. By its account, Margaret Curran, the shadow Scottish secretary and a friend of Lamont’s since freshers’ week at Glasgow University 38 years ago, phoned members of Labour’s Scottish executive committee on Miliband’s behalf to canvass opinion on whether she should step down. It is a claim flatly denied by Curran’s office.

“The only person she spoke to that week was the chair of the Scottish executive and it wasn’t about that [Lamont’s leadership],” a spokesman told me. But Lamont’s allies maintain that Miliband was guilty of a “ham-fisted plot”. “If Ed had wanted her to go, he just needed to sit down and say to her, ‘Thanks for what you’ve done over the last three years, I think it’s time for a change of direction,’” one told me.

Several Labour MPs attributed what one described as the “brutal knifing” to polls, analysed in detail on the New Statesman’s election website, showing that the Scottish National Party could win as many as 25 of the party’s 40 Scottish Westminster seats. One source spoke of “panic” in Miliband’s office.

Others suggested that Jim Murphy, the shadow international development secretary and the front-runner to become leader, was preparing to publish a list of MPs and MSPs calling for Lamont’s resignation. As rumours of her departure swirled, Lamont concluded that she was, in the words of a political namesake, “in office but not in power”.

Even those inured to the gang warfare that periodically engulfs Scottish Labour (an institution said to have more factions than members) are astonished by what happened next. After informing her closest aides of her intention to resign on the evening of 23 October, Lamont attended a policy meeting in Glasgow at which the deputy leader, Anas Sarwar, the Paisley MP and shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, and the business manager, Paul Martin, were present. Having chosen not to tell them of her decision to step down, she went to the offices of the Labour-supporting tabloid the Daily Record on Central Quay, Glasgow.

What resulted was one of the most remarkable political interviews of recent years. As well as announcing her resignation, of which Miliband’s team was only informed on 24 October, Lamont co-opted nationalist rhetoric and accused Labour of treating the Scottish party as the “branch office of a party based in London”. One MP spoke of a “nuclear button” having been pressed; another source compared it to “walking out of a room and throwing a grenade behind you”.

Few thought that Lamont, an amiable former English teacher, was capable of such acts of political war. “Après moi, le déluge,” she seemed to have declared. A party that six weeks ago celebrated victory in the independence referendum is now immersed in a deep crisis, while the SNP scales new heights of popularity.

How, the men and women of Scottish Labour ask, did it come to this?

When Johann Lamont, who is 57, was elected in December 2011, seven months after the SNP’s landslide victory in the Holyrood election, it was to an entirely new position. Unlike her predecessors, who were merely “leader of the Labour Party in the Scottish Parliament”, she entered office as “leader of the Scottish party” with authority over its 41 MPs (a number since reduced to 40 following the removal of the whip from Falkirk’s Eric Joyce). In theory, at least, she would wield unprecedented power.

That the reality proved so different is the subject of two diametrically opposed accounts. According to one narrative, Lamont was the victim of a power-hungry Westminster machine that, unable to relinquish its centralising habits, quashed her authority at every turn.

“The changes that were necessary to actually put that real change [the creation of the post of Scottish Labour leader] into effect haven’t really happened either culturally or practically,” Katy Clark, the left-wing MP for North Ayrshire and Arran, told me. “Johann wasn’t given the organisational support that she required to carry out her role . . . Every time I asked her to come to an event in my constituency, she turned up but she was often by herself. She didn’t have an operation around her, she didn’t have the organisational support and, clearly, she didn’t have the freedom that she required to do what was necessary for the Scottish party.”

One claim made the day after Lamont’s resignation was announced was that Miliband had barred her from denouncing the bedroom tax for a year while he “made up his mind” on the policy. It is this charge, more than any other, that has angered and bewildered those closest to the Labour leader. As they point out, the measure was condemned by all sections of the party from the moment it was implemented. It was in September 2013, six months after its introduction, that Miliband formally pledged to repeal the policy but his opposition was never in question.

A more credible complaint is that the original proposals of Lamont’s devolution commission, including the full transfer of income tax, were vetoed by the party high command at Westminster, leaving Labour as the most centralising of the main parties. “She nearly quit because Ed’s office wouldn’t move on it,” one source told me.

Those who have defended the party from Lamont’s offensive in recent days suggest that the fault lay with her, rather than with Miliband. “It was a failure of leadership, not a failure of structures,” one told me. According to this account, Lamont simply lacked the guile and agility needed to fulfil the potential of her role. “In many ways, she was too inclusive,” one Scottish Labour MP suggested. “She was very mindful of Douglas, very mindful of Margaret, very mindful of Anas, very mindful of Jim, very mindful of Ed. She didn’t use the clout that she had as effectively as she could.”

Friends and critics alike spoke of how Lamont frequently referred to herself as a “reluctant leader”, someone who did not crave office but who felt duty-bound to support the party at its lowest ebb.

The question that follows is how such a figure came to lead Scottish Labour at this most critical juncture in its history. That no one I spoke to doubted that Lamont was the best available candidate in 2011 is evidence of the paucity of talent in Holyrood. For years, even as the devolved parliament has become the defining arena of Scottish politics, Labour’s A-team has remained at Westminster, leaving the reserves to be massacred by Alex Salmond’s championship-winning side.

In Jim Murphy, some believe that the party has found its super-sub. After his “100 towns in 100 days” speaking tour made him a Unionist hero during the referendum campaign, the shadow international development secretary is regarded as having the stature necessary to first halt and then reverse the forward march of the SNP.

“He looks like a leader,” a supporter declared. A teetotal vegetarian (his one vice is Irn-Bru) who finished first among MPs in the 2013 London Marathon and the author of a well-received recent book on football, even his enemies concede that few politicians can equal his energy.

But those same figures argue that his personality, ideology and Westminster background make him ill-equipped for the task at hand. “He’s the Marmite-plus candidate,” one Labour MP told me, noting that his “fraught relationship” with Douglas Alexander had “got worse” during the referendum campaign. “Jim Murphy’s the last person you would want to heal the wounds of a divided party.”

The Labour MSP Malcolm Chisholm, meanwhile, warned that electing an MP as leader would “turn a crisis into a catastrophe”. Under the party’s rules, Murphy is required to seek election to Holyrood by 5 May 2016 (the date of the next devolved contest) at the latest. While unlikely to trigger a stand-alone by-election, several sources have suggested that he would aim to secure a seat in time for the general election, giving him a year to take on Nicola Sturgeon in the Holyrood chamber.

No Scottish Labour politician draws more opprobrium from nationalists than Murphy. To some in the party, this is proof that he is the one they fear the most. However, SNP sources deride this as wishful thinking. “He’s pro-[tuition] fees, pro-Iraq [war], pro-Trident, which are three of the things now embedded as part of the SNP’s moral and political identity,” one told me. “All of the worst aspects of Labour politics from an SNP perspective are wrapped up and embodied in Murphy. His election would hand the party a gift on a plate.”

The prospect of the trade unions – and Unite in particular (whose recent animus towards Murphy dates from the Falkirk affair) – opening fire on him during the campaign is one that they relish. “Unless Ed can do a deal with them, the unions will cause problems for Jim,” one Labour figure warned.

As will the insurgent SNP and the wider nationalist movement. Under Sturgeon’s leadership, the party will move to the left, partly out of conviction (unlike Salmond, she is an unambiguous social democrat) and partly out of necessity. The 60,000 people who have joined the SNP since the referendum demand nothing less. In the new Scotland, where a young generation of writers, thinkers and activists define themselves by their constitutional radicalism, Labour faces forces that it can no longer control.

For now, the party draws consolation from the enduring unpopularity of the Tories in Scotland, as demonstrated during the referendum campaign. By framing the general election as a choice between a Conservative government or a Labour government, it hopes to prevent critical losses to the nationalists. First, Labour needs to win the right to be heard again. After the public bloodletting of the past weeks, the contrast between the ineptitude of Scottish Labour and the ruthless competence of the SNP has never been greater. The electorate could yet respond by inflicting even greater harm on Labour. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, British jihadis fighting with Isis

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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.