Scottish Labour MPs at Westminster are like the older brother who gets the blame for the trouble caused by tearaway younger brothers and sisters. They can’t disown their stroppy siblings in the Scottish Parliament, but they deeply resent being tarred with the same brush.
The permanent air of crisis surrounding the Labour-dominated Scottish government and deepening disillusion with the year-old Holyrood parliament are causing mounting alarm among Scottish MPs with their minds on defending narrow majorities at the looming general election.
Last week’s pincer movement by two unlikely allies on the religious front, a Roman Catholic cardinal and a member of the fundamentalist Church of the Nazarene, turned the alarm into panic.
Cardinal Tom Winning’s bitter denunciation of the Scottish Parliament as “an utter failure” could be dismissed as sour grapes. But the Stagecoach bus tycoon Brian Souter’s threat of “prolonged guerrilla warfare” aimed at unseating Labour politicians cannot be shrugged off.
With all-too-typical brashness, George Galloway MP used his Mail on Sunday column to challenge Souter to stand against him in Glasgow Kelvin. But in an adjoining item, he agreed with the cardinal that “the political agenda has become absurdly skewed over the Scottish Parliament’s first year”.
Galloway’s colleagues are less gung-ho about the effect of a Souter-financed campaign on billboards across Labour’s heartlands in central Scotland accusing them of being “anti-marriage”.
One Clydeside member is said to be “combustible” on the subject of the Scottish Parliament’s performance, and a neighbouring veteran, who scraped home last time, is in despair.
He is preparing himself for defeat by pessimistically predicting that Labour will be wiped out to a minimum of ten seats as a direct result of the Scottish government’s presentational disasters.
Cooler heads are urging a strategy of “joined-up politics” between now and the general election. Michael Connarty, MP for Falkirk East, said: “Our colleagues have to realise that many Scots do not distinguish between Westminster and the Scottish Parliament. They only look at how Labour is performing in both places.
“Anything that screws up the public perception of Labour’s competence will hit Labour candidates everywhere. The Westminster MPs are next in the firing line and, unless things change, we will pay for their mistakes. It would be extremely damaging if Souter kept up the propaganda battle, because the outcome of that will be disillusion with all politicians.”
The frustration felt by Westminster MPs is caused by their having to bite their tongues on devolved Scottish issues, while at the same time having to carry the can for the mood of disillusion among Scottish voters. Small wonder that many Scots MPs want Tony Blair to defer the general election until as late as possible, in the hope that the Scottish Parliament will eventually get something right.
Behind the scenes, senior figures in Scottish Labour are pressing the leadership to find ways of switching the focus from Holyrood’s dramas to Westminster’s continuing importance for Scotland.
Their main problem will be to win the attention of the Scottish media, which naturally find the closer-to-home traumas more fascinating than the trickle-down effect of UK government. The Scottish Secretary, John Reid, has fought a losing battle trying to remind Scots of the benefits of the United Kingdom.
UK Cabinet members who are also Scots MPs – Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling and Robin Cook – are being asked to spend even more time in their homeland.
There will also have to be an understanding by other UK Cabinet ministers that devolution should be a two-way street. For the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, to grant a visa to a convicted rapist – the boxer Mike Tyson – while ignoring the near-unanimous urging of the Scottish Parliament not to do so, failed the test of “joined-up politics”.
Scottish ministers with proven election records – Jack McConnell, who established his campaigning credentials as Scottish Labour general secretary in 1997, and the far-thinking Henry McLeish – will be recruited to present a united front.
Another strand of the pre-election plan will be to repeat the successful 1997 strategy of downplaying the importance of the Scottish Nationalists. They will be portrayed as irrelevant in post-devolution Westminster, while the no-hope (in Scotland) Tories will be restored as bogeymen.
But the essential problem for Labour remains. Can the devolved Scottish government move its agenda on to popular issues and start getting politics a good name in Scotland?
A long-serving Westminster MP tried hard to be understanding of his eager new counterparts at Holyrood: “I recognise in them a lot of myself when I was starting out in politics 20 years ago. We just have to hope they grow out of it – and quick . . .”