Following its disastrous showing at the Holyrood elections earlier this year, the Labour Party in Scotland has set-out plans for a comprehensive overhaul of its internal structures.
With the aim of becoming more responsive to the aspirations of Scottish voters, it will get a new Scotland-wide leader with substantial policy making powers, as well as a new base of operations in Edinburgh. Further, local branches will be made to correspond to the constituency boundaries of the Scottish, rather than the UK, parliament and all devolved issues will be decided exclusively by members and elected representatives north of the border.
The most immediate challenge for the newly reformed Scottish Labour Party is to find a way of halting the SNP’s momentum. After winning an unprecedented overall majority in May, the Nationalists have gone from strength to strength. The most recent Ipsos/Mori poll registered support for Alex Salmond’s administration at 49 per cent – an astonishing achievement for a party of government during a period austerity. Meanwhile, Salmond himself enjoys a 62 per cent approval rating.
Labour cannot allow the SNP to go into the forthcoming independence referendum – scheduled for the second half of this parliamentary session – riding high on a wave of popular enthusiasm. But what can it do to put the brakes on the separatist juggernaut?
The main element in any Labour revival must be genuinely effective leadership. So far just three candidates – Johann Lamont MSP, Ken Macintosh MSP and Tom Harris MP – have put their names forward as potential replacements for Iain Gray. (Attempts to persuade more established figures like Jim Murphy, Douglas Alexander and even Alistair Darling to stand have been unsuccessful.)
As Gray’s deputy over the last four years Lamont has direct experience of leading the MSP group in battle against the SNP government and enjoys a fearsome reputation as a tough political street fighter. But in her tribalism, her intellectual conservatism and her almost obsessive hatred of nationalism, she represents everything that burdens Labour in its efforts to reconnect with an increasingly assertive Scottish electorate and couldn’t possibly lead the party back to power.
Macintosh’s problem is the reverse: he is seen as being too low-key and conciliatory. An MSP since the creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, he has never developed much of a public profile. It is easy to imagine him being casually brushed aside – or worse – by Salmond at First Minister’s Questions every Thursday.
That leaves Tom Harris, MP for Glasgow South, as the only credible challenger. Harris is almost alone among the party’s big hitters in having grasped the scale of the crisis which Scottish Labour faces. In a recent outspoken attack on Labour’s “arrogance and complacency”, he warned that the UK was “on the brink of the greatest upheaval in its history” and said it was time to recognise that “it’s Scotland first, the Union second, the Labour Party third”.
Yet Harris, too, is fatally compromised. His long association with Blairism will not sit well with Scotland’s social democratic majority, nor with an activist base still struggling to come to terms with the party’s right-ward drift over the last two decades. Indeed, it was Labour’s advocacy of university tuition fees, the privatisation of the NHS and PFI which allowed the SNP to claim the left-of-centre ground in Scottish politics – a key factor in its success.
But the fact is, even if another, better suited candidate does emerge, Labour in Scotland cannot seriously expect to win the next Scottish election. First of all, barring an extraordinary collapse in support, the SNP, with nearly twice as many MSPs as Labour, will almost certainly remain the largest party at Holyrood in 2016. This means it will retain the ‘moral right’ to form a third term government. Secondly, the process of re-building a party after a shattering defeat normally takes two elections. Thirdly, there is no guarantee that the proposed reforms will translate into electoral success.
The next leader of the Scottish Labour Party will therefore be forced into a care-taker role, guiding the party through a difficult period of transition. The most he or she can reasonably hope to do is make sure the SNP loses the independence referendum and drops a dozen or so MSPs. Perhaps this explains the reluctance of Jim Murphy and Douglas Alexander to give up the relative comfort of the Westminster bubble for the harsher winds of the Scottish political landscape.