It was, perhaps, the best thing I have ever written. It was certainly one of the best researched pieces I have ever produced. I spoke to both Dennis Canavan and the late, much missed, Alex Falconer MEP for some background.
They had, by 1999, both fallen foul of the Labour machine constructed and peopled by those acceptable to the UK leadership. Traditional Labour elected representatives, Alex and Dennis did not fit the mould of the shiny New Labour brand, and they resisted pressures to adapt. Alex Falconer was on the cusp of retirement, but Dennis Canavan had a point to prove, and a constituency which reacted to protect its own; electing him with an overwhelming majority as an independent. It was an early indication that traditional Labour would bite back. They may be sedated and lie dormant, but somewhere they are concealed.
I did invite opportunity for the establishment to contribute – on more than one occasion and through more than one media – but the then General Secretary Alex Rowley didn’t pay me the courtesy of a response.
What was apparent then, and is apposite now, is that there is a fight for control of the heart of the Labour Party. That fight is currently being waged on two fronts; in Westminster and in Holyrood for the heart of the Scottish Party and for the heart of the party as a whole.
This isn’t a new fight. The change of focus and ownership of the party started over twenty years ago. The Labour Party does not lose elections well. When it loses the party goes in to decline and becomes absorbed in a vacuum of policy ideas and ineffective introspection. History is strewn with examples of the folly of the Labour Party in the years following loss of power. They take a long time to regroup.
That Thatcherism prevailed almost unscathed during the Blair years is testament to how far the party had moved from its traditional stomping grounds on the left in order to appease and appeal to the moderate voters of middle England. That there is current debate about reform of the welfare state and the pernicious changes which the Tories have enacted and the Labour Party have no concrete alternative policy ideas shows just how unprepared for the next general election they are and how much traditional ideology has been sacrificed for electoral success.
Democracy demands strong opposition. It demands effective opposition. What we have at Holyrood and at Westminster is neither of those things. The Labour Party in opposition are devoid of ideas, bound up in useless rhetoric, and seemingly incapable of presenting an alternative ideology. Their opposition is a magic box of illusion, fairly transparent and centred on illuminating what the Scottish and UK Governments are doing wrong but without the honesty of giving the public something else to aspire to. In essence, practising opposition for opposition sake. The Labour Party is the biggest opposition in both parliaments, and they mirror each other exactly for lack of foresight and substance.
There are some great representatives within the amassed Labour ranks – some of the work Kezia Dugdale is doing on legal loan sharks for example proves this – but there are some there, it seems, merely to keep a seat warm without contributing much to debate or in helping to provide credible discourse.
Success is both a prize and a curse. Success breeds careerists like rabbits, allegedly. I don’t know much about rabbit reproduction but I know a boom in careerists when I see one, and the Labour Party have had plenty of them, and now, so have the SNP. Careerists, career politicians – or whatever you wish to call them – are not good for the heart of a party. Every party draws them when it looks like they’re about to get out of opposition. Careerists are not representative of any particular ideology but of Thatcherite self –aspiration. Talk to them and they could pretty much represent any political party which was successful.
Career politicians are – usually – university educated and go straight to work for political parties without any life experience. They are not particularly active at grassroots level, but have their eyes on the shiny prize of election to parliament. Not for them the traditional route through the ranks. We all know who these people are.
The Blair years attracted many careerists. Even the brothers Miliband don’t have sufficient real life experience to bring to the fore, and it shows. The amassed ranks of both the Labour Party and the Conservatives are packed with people who were selected through patronage and the Labour Party’s current ennui is evidence of the damage they cause. Traditional routes to government have been eroded and the forums for building real, effective policy removed. The policy vacuum is mirrored by their vacuum of real life experience.
Ed Miliband doesn’t have the support of the Labour Party. He was elected by the unions possibly hoping for a partial restatement of some Labour values eroded during the Blair years. However, I’d warrant that even they won’t be delighted with his lacklustre performance and inability to frame the debate within a Labour prism.
The parliamentary Labour Party and the membership did not vote for Ed, and that makes his hold on the leadership shaky. Furthermore, it doesn’t bode well for the regard they hold him in and if he doesn’t have this, he doesn’t have their respect.
The seams are creaking on Ed’s leadership. Even Tony Blair has taken time out from saving the Western world to stick the boot in. The leadership election and the previous Blair/Brown tensions have left carcasses and grudges strewn throughout the Labour Party. It remains to be seen if Ed can find the mettle to really unite them. Basing an opinion on current murmurs which are increasing in crescendo, I’d moot the answer is no. Ed Miliband will not win a general election for the Labour Party.
In the UK the Labour Party are ahead in the polls, but we have seen them lose a 20 lead to the Tories previously as an election looms and people concentrate on the issues at hand. Tories = Bad is not going to stack up as a manifesto. Iain Gray tried SNP = Bad at Holyrood in 2011, and look where that got him? From 2007-2011 the Scottish Labour Party completely failed to conjure their own narrative and in 2011 they were soundly punished for it. They were riding high at over 10 points in the opinion polls less than six months before the election too. Ed Miliband should take note.
And what of Scotland? I’d doubt even the staunchest Labour Party stalwart would express – privately – that they think Johann is doing a sterling job. They may like her, and think her capable, but she is not currently demonstrating that competence. She walks a very difficult line and her problems are compounded because she doesn’t appear to have the support of Labour MPs who seem very surly toward her having supremacy over them and over Scottish Labour policy. I have no idea if persistent rumours which abound about MPs not attending the Scottish Labour conference this weekend are true, but I would warrant there is no smoke without fire.
It seems that the attempt to really establish a policy making Scottish Labour Party – missing at the time of writing my dissertation – is not without its own detractors. SNP support in the polls is quite enough for Johann to be worried about, but the addition of low level, but constant and destabilising, sniping from Westminster can’t be helping.
Dennis Canavan was unusual in 1999 that – beast of a figure at Westminster he was – he wanted to represent his constituency Scottish Parliament. Who can forget the “pretendy wee parliament” and “parish council” remarks about the Scottish Parliament? It seems some of the Labour MPs haven’t changed their mind. Westminster is where they perceive the talent and power to be.
After 2011 there was much introspection and a leadership contest in Scotland. There was much harrumphing about getting back to basics, but where are the new policies which were meant to be developed as a result? All too often Johann Lamont announces the creation of new groups to consider new areas of policy, but where are the fruits of this?
The hastily constructed proposals yesterday on a Devo Plus model were rushed, and it showed. They were not the considered plans which the public have the right to expect. If you are going to announce new policy, plans, proposals or consultations, they should be able to stand up to rigorous scrutiny, not fall foul of less than 6 hours half-hearted considerations.
Until Johann Lamont can capture the heart of the Scottish party, she is not going to recapture any ground from the SNP. It has been almost two years since the 2011 elections. It must terrify proud Labour members that the leadership are failing to articulate any new ideas.
The Labour Party won’t be a credible force in either Scotland or the UK until they abandon opposition for the sake of opposition, quash their detractors and develop alternative policy. And Ed and Johann should never forget that no leader is indispensible; look at Margaret Thatcher.