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3 July 2000

Loyalists and rebels prepare for battle

New Statesman Scotland - The Scottish Parliament has had a pig of a first year. But the loo

By Dean Nelson

Wanted: big beasts for Labour back benches. Must be able to make rousing speeches in Scottish Parliament and give the impression that independent thinking is alive within the party. The Scottish Parliament is a year (or 293 years) old this week and the posts have yet to be filled.

This fact is acknowledged from St Andrew’s House to Downing Street and welcomed by both for entirely different reasons. Feisty, challenging Labour backbenchers are no good to Donald Dewar and would undermine a new Scottish cringe being nourished by those close to the Westminster leadership.

“That Scotland is a shambles is making people much less confident about independence. We got our devolved parliament and it’s crap; an independent one would be more crap,” said one source close to the party leadership at Westminster.

“I can’t understand why backbenchers are not forming groups and causing trouble. Is it lack of brains or lack of courage? Why are they not laying into the leadership for the lack of it? John McAllion, Malcom Chisholm, where are they? Gordon Jackson hasn’t got a job to do and needs to take it more seriously. Richard Simpson has come on leaps and bounds. But where are the women? We made a huge issue of having 50 per cent, but they have not come forward. Everyone says privately that there’s a leadership vacuum, the leadership is not working, there’s no strategy and no effective presentation of policy. Why will they not stand up and say it? Why not at least say it in the Labour group? The next phase is when people say in public what they are saying in private.”

I ask if these comments are on or off the record, and my contact hoots with derision. Need I ask? The Scottish Labour Party is like the Communist Party of the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death. Its MSPs are unsure of their own clout, their own place in the pecking order; they are nervous about their own ability to change things, and are terrified of speaking freely. The party’s MSPs are keeping their heads down, abdicating responsibility for Scottish Labour’s poor performance and praying that a new leader will soon emerge to make everything right. One Labour backbencher confided her despair at Dewar’s leadership. “The big weakness is that we have not developed organisationally, not in terms of the Labour group, but the Scottish Executive and its strategy. No one is thinking about presentation to the electorate in three years, what lines will come to fruition to show Labour delivers. We’re running the machine, but not thinking of the politics.

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“I’m proud of repealing Section 2a [Clause 28], but I don’t go home at night saying: we did a good job there today. The programme for government is not addressing the real issues: health, education, transport, poverty, the redistribution of wealth.

“The cruel answer is for Donald not to come back to work. Jack McConnell should be the man, but there’s always something worrying about the prospect. Wendy Alexander rubs everyone up the wrong way and Henry McLeish agrees with everybody on everything. Susan Deacon is just too inexperienced, which means Donald has my wholehearted support.”

The backbenchers despair of their leader, pray for change, fear it more than anything and yet lack the confidence to look for the solutions.

It is understandable. The party made great claims for its candidates before the election. They were la creme de la creme, selected by independent panelists for their managerial skills. Job descriptions and personal specifications were checked against CVs. But even those with real political experience could not have been prepared for the intense scrutiny and abuse to which they were subjected when they arrived on the Mound.

There was the row over the commemorative gongs they had minted for themselves before they’d even got down to work. There were the “shirking” family-friendly hours, the excessive holidays, overnight and office expenses – all before the politics got under way.

Then the physical charms of the female MSPs were put under scrutiny by the (flawlessly handsome!) hacks, and some were dismissed as gormless Traceys and Sharons unable to string a sentence together.

And while it has been perfectly possible for some Westminster MPs to pass their time without ever making a speech, every move of our new Scottish representatives came in for detailed consideration. What hasn’t been published about each MSP in Scotland’s newspapers could be written in caps on a gnat’s arse. Then came the politics: the Noel Ruddock affair; Lobbygate; the hounding and sacking of Dewar’s chief of staff, John Rafferty; the revelations that special adviser Philip Chalmers had been caught drunk in charge of his people-mover while entertaining a prostitute; the Scottish Executive flip-flopping over the abolition of warrant sales and the repeal of Section 28, which banned councils from promoting homosexual relationships as equal to heterosexual ones.

They have had much to put up with. Their first year as full-time politicians has been one of perpetual crisis management without the management. Unsurprisingly, they retreated to their committees, where the scrutiny wasn’t quite so intense, and got on with their work.

And much of it has been sterling work. The Standards Committee inquiry into the Lobbygate affair saw a number of MSPs emerge as solidly able. Richard Simpson shone; Des McNulty realised after a time that toadying was not required; and Karen Gillon turned in a bravura growling performance. For the Nationalists, Tricia Marwick asked all the right questions.

The Local Government Committee, convened by Trish Godman, has quietly clashed with the Scottish Executive over its support for an independent review of local government finance. The Equal Opportunities Committee provided a platform for Asian groups to challenge Scottish Homes over its housing policies.

Away from the teddy-bear pit on the Mound, the committees have been the real learning ground for MSPs, and the source of their growing confidence. It was in the committees that the first glimpses of Labour perestroika could be caught. The Social Inclusion, Local Government and Justice and Home Affairs committees had each taken Tommy Sheridan’s private member’s bill to abolish poindings and warrant sales, exhaustively collected evidence from throughout Scotland, and then formed a cross-party consensus in support. All three committees acknowledged that there would be a problem for local authorities collecting debts following abolition, but decided the inhumanity of seizing debtors’ possessions and selling them at public auction was so humiliating that they should be abolished immediately while the search for a humane alternative was under way.

The Scottish Executive failed to register the strength of feeling among Labour backbenchers and decided to oppose abolition. Labour MSPs, including the staunch loyalists Pauline McNeil, Andy Kerr and Gordon Jackson, were forced to choose between unnatural rebellion and a loyalty that would have seen Labour painted as the Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels party of shaven-headed debt collectors.

Despite pleas from Dewar in a series of private group meetings, the group maintained its rebellion until Jim Wallace was forced to drop his opposition in the chamber.

It was a turning point for the Labour group, as well as the parliament. It marked the first time that the new politics – quietly carried out in sparsely attended committee rooms – had walked up the Lawnmarket to the Scottish Parliament and rebranded itself as revolt. Apart from the drama of the parliament’s first day, when Winnie Ewing declared it “reconvened”, it was the most memorable debate since the election.

For the leader of the Scottish National Party, Alex Salmond, the rebellion marked the moment the parliament began punching its weight. “The parliament has been moving towards asserting itself for a few months now. It almost happened a few months ago on GM foods, where there was a Labour and a Liberal rebellion which was frustrated by the Tories acting like an executive fifth column.”

Labour backbenchers say rebellion is not what they’re about, and that, while it might make a good spectator sport for the media, it is bad for the party and the parliament itself.

“This is a fledgling institution. For the traditional left to start making trouble would be more damaging to the parliament than to the party. People are focused on it being an institu-tion that needs nurturing. We are 55 people who see each other every day, a small band working together as a team.

“We set out with what was seen as a weak and undervalued back bench. We’ve come out the other end with very powerful committee members, conveners, people who are good in the chamber. We’re very united,” said the Labour group spokesman, Andy Kerr.

His argument is shared by Dewar and advisers in Downing Street. The Scottish Parliament, they say, needs to “bed down”, to establish itself snoozily in a low-key way. But it is not scholarly and diligent legal scrutiny of legislation that establishes parliaments in voters’ minds. It is political theatre that they remember, that reminds them what parliaments are for and why they are important: the resignation speeches from the Thatcher years; the sharp intake of Westminster breath as Geoffrey Howe complained of standing at the crease only to find the captain had broken the bat.

Salmond knows that the parliament needs controversy more than anything. “The most important thing is the transference, not just of political power, but of political attention,” he says. There will be much more “transference” when the parliament enters its second year. Labour will face its most damaging split yet over the government’s plans to introduce PR in local government elections. The many former councillors and council employees on Labour’s back benches will have an opportunity to declare their support for local government and maintaining totalitarian control in the central belt at the same time. A successful rebellion will threaten the coalition, but it will be the kind of political theatre the parliament needs truly to bed in. Labour’s backbenchers are learning fast, and real politics is coming soon to a parliament near you.