What to do about Scottish Labour?

In one of those quirks of life, Scottish Labour, one of the winners of the referendum, has been plunged into yet another crisis, while the SNP, the main loser of the referendum is about to sell out arenas to hear their new leader deliver a stump speech.

The expectation in some quarters post-September 18th would have been of a demoralised SNP, who had lost their leader and were set to be picked off by a resurgent Labour party, bolstered by the campaign.

That was the theory. The reality is that Glasgow has scared Labour. The city moving to Yes has created a new dynamic. Of course, as some Labour commentators have suggested, there were plenty of Labour supporters who voted Yes, and there is a good chance that they may revert back to type.

But it is clear the walls have been breached, and the SNP have the city in their sights. What is perhaps not commented on much is that for the first time in a generation, the SNP will have a leader who comes from the West Coast of Scotland. Sturgeon brings with her a different worldview from the oil rich North East, and perhaps a better understanding of Glasgow than previous leaders. She is planted right in the middle of the Labour heartland and she wants the city.

And now of course, the on-going internal battles that plague Scottish Labour have reared their head once again. A decent showing at the Local Government elections, followed by a string of decent by-election victories (not to mention the referendum), were not enough for Lamont to stay in her role.

But while the UK leadership would have hoped Lamont went quietly, she has decided once and for all to expose the fundamental issues facing the party in Scotland, placing considerable blame on the UK Party.

Of course, the UK Party may argue that the polling for the Scottish elections had barely moved since she took over, and Lamont trailed behind Salmond in the popularity stakes. For them change needed to happen before another bad showing in 2016 and a possible threat in 2015.

However the timing couldn’t be worse. While Labour are having a talk about their structures and trying to get a handle on devolution, Nicola Sturgeon is going on what feels like a victory tour of Scotland, speaking to many of the 60,000 new members who have joined in the last month.

The party is now moving swiftly with the election of a new Scottish leader. At the time of writing, Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling, Anas Sarwar, Jackie Baillie, Jenny Marra and Kezia Dugdale have all ruled themselves out of contention. Jim Murphy, who had a very successful referendum campaign is now the clear front-runner, and popular with the Labour rank and file. Neil Findlay is also a potential contender, and would appeal to the left of the party.

Whoever becomes leader has some monumental tasks ahead of them;

1.       Time: It is about half a year until the UK elections, and eighteen months until the Scottish Parliament elections. Both fights were already going to be tough for the party. Johann Lamont left with just enough time for a new leader to be embedded ahead of 2015, but they will have to hit the ground running. Manifesto development is going to have to be accelerated. This may be why Scottish Labour needs names that the public are already familiar with.

2.       MP or MSP?: There is a view in some quarters of the party that the Scottish Labour leader needs to be Holyrood. Anything less would confirm Lamont’s comments to be true and allow the SNP a chance to attack whoever led the group in Holyrood of dancing to Westminster’s tune. The other side of the coin is that Alex Salmond of course led the party without being an MSP. But the dynamics are completely different from 2003. If an MP is to go for the role, it is unlikely they could do so without a commitment to stand in the 2016 election.

3.       Policies:  The public know what Scottish Labour are against – independence, the SNP, devo-max. They are perhaps less sure what they are standing for. While of course manifesto development will hold off some of big ticket policy ideas, there is still no sense as to what differentiates Labour from the SNP, two parties which are (whisper it) far closer than either side would like to admit.

Lamont tried to push this forward with her speech about universal policies vs a targeted approach. But the reaction from the left and political opposition forced a reversal in some key areas such as education. A new leader needs to come with ideas and a willingness to be honest with the public. One area that could be looked at is the Local Income Tax. The impact of the council tax freeze is being felt across Scotland, and the SNP have a commitment to start to look at reform before 2016. Scottish Labour could get a head start on this, and try and bring forward truly progressive policies which would be fair, and help to ensure Local Authorities were fully funded. This would also have the benefit of being popular with Labour councillors.

4.       The London Question: Much of the Scottish Labour operation is funded by the UK party, which is why they have so much influence over policy in Scotland. While former leaders have called for the Scottish party to become autonomous, this would have an impact on the resources of the party at a time that the SNP have nearly ten times as many members. An MP being made leader of the party may put a plaster over the problem, but it would only be for a time. Either Scottish Labour has to try and become self-funding, or it needs to implement some form of devolution.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. There are other issues at play, such as the interpersonal relationships between individual MPs and MSPs, but the party has to recognise the far greater challenges that face it. Anything less than wholesale change could  keep the party in opposition for many more years to come.

By Rob

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