If they trusted him, WWTD would be the new motto of the Labour party:  What Would Tony Do?

Yeah, maybe not.  But as more information seeps into the public domain about the premiership of Tony Blair (I’ve just finished Mandelson’s memoir – which paints a particularly bad picture of Gordon Brown) Labour are once again at a turning point.  They are out of office – a situation not unknown to them – and, once again, they are considering a lurch to the left.  The problem for them here is twofold:  historically (1983) this was a disaster and the country is not where they think they need to go.  So a lurch to the left would probably have a similar disastrous outcome to that of 1983.

Ignoring the UK level issue at the moment and turning attention to Scotland, the situation is less critical in terms of policy programme but more so in terms of personality.  At least with the leadership contest for the UK party, Labour have an opportunity to fill the power vacuum left at the top of the tree.  In Scotland, that vacuum remains and, undoubtedly, needs to be dealt with.

Prior to their defeat in May, Labour effectively had three leaders in Scotland.  The Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, as leader of Labour party, was constitutionally at least, leader of (what is known by name only) as Scottish Labour.  In order not to elevate the SNP First Minister to his level, the Prime Minister appointed Jim Murphy as Secretary of State for Scotland to deal with him for the UK Government – effectively becoming de facto leader of Scottish Labour in the process.  And finally, of least importance to the internal workings of the Labour Party but probably most prominent when it came to devolved politics, we have Iain Gray, leader of the Labour group in the Scottish Parliament, to give his full title.  That was prior to the election.

Now we have a situation where Labour don’t have a leader at UK level (which removes them from the equation).  They also don’t have a Secretary of State for Scotland – being out of power, they have a Shadow Sec State, which is simply not as powerful.  I can’t see the First Minister calling Jim Murphy all that often now.  Iain Gray is still in position of course, but here’s the issue:  his remit only stretches as far as his MSPs.  Of course they can work out policy for the Scottish Parliament in devolved areas (although I think – but I’m not sure – that if it differs substantially from UK Labour policy, it has to be ratified by their NEC) but that’s it.  He has no control over Labour’s substantial group of Scottish MPs.

I think it is fair to say that Iain Gray has not exactly set the heather alight as leader of Labour in the Scottish Parliament.  That’s not a criticism as such, merely an observation.  Time and again at FMQs he has barely grazed the First Minister (though on one or two occasions he has landed a punch, albeit one which tends to have been fairly easily parried).  And outside of Holyrood he has tended to be overshadowed by his Westminster colleagues.  And even in the four months that Labour have been out of power, he has not really come forward and owned the Labour agenda in Scotland.

I called this post “advice” for a reason… but I know those who are Labour-minded will not like it.  Iain Gray and Scottish Labour have to assert their independence (although they probably shouldn’t use the word independence).  Eleven years after devolution began it is time that the party north of the border – and its leader – took responsibility for their own actions and stopped deferring to the UK party.  I think if they do so – if they really are allowed to separate, or at least become a more “federally” organised party, like the Lib Dems – then they will be much better equipped to present themselves as a party which is in direct competition to the SNP in fighting for particularly Scottish interests.  I realise that Scottish MPs are unlikely to accept a ‘mere’ MSP as their leader, but this is a fight that Scottish Labour MSPs have to take on – and win.  Otherwise I really can’t see how the public will view them as anything other than proxies for UK Labour.

That, I think is the biggest challenge for Labour before next May’s Scottish Parliament election – make the Scottish party more Scottish internally, and reap the rewards of it electorally.  It won’t be easy, but that which is necessary for success never is.

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