Could Labour really be in crisis in Holyrood after only a week under it’s new leader, Wendy Alexander? Well, it’s beginning to look very like it. She’s had an appalling press over the weekend, a grim curtain-raiser to her first conference speech as leader today in Bournemouth. The headlines told of resignation, internecine warfare, cronyism, and incompetence.
Her own MSPs have started briefing against her; she looks likely to loose her communications chief, Brian Lironi, following a breakdown in relations; and her performance at First Minister’s question time has widely panned as a “disaster”. There are tales of lost tempers, late night texting furies, recrimination and confusion.
You have to wonder if Labour has acquired a death wish. How could they be so stupid, so irresponsible, as to plunge into another self-inflicted crisis just as Alex Salmond’s honeymoon was beginning to wear off? The Scottish Labour Party had an opportunity to make a fresh start with a new leadership and it is throwing it away.
How much of this is Wendy Alexander’s fault? Well, the problems in the Labour Party are systemic and can’t be put down to one individual, no matter how headstrong.. However, questions have to be raised about the way in which she has conducted the changeover. And I don’t mean the elevation of a substantial number of women MSPs in the Scottish Labour front bench – no one remarks on cabinets, like Gordon Brown’s, that happen to contain a preponderance of men.
No, this is nothing to do with her sex, or even her famously explosive temperament. It is all about her politics and the nature of her party. Above all it is her failure to delineate a clear political direction in Scotland. If team Wendy is fractious and embittered it is because it doesn’t really know where it’s going.
The first mistake was not to have a leadership election. Labour has an almost North Korean predilection for elections with only one candidate. Apart from undermining public respect, the lack of a contest meant that Wendy Alexander did not have to formulate a clear and expressive policy agenda, tested in debate.
Before she was elected, Wendy declared that she would be “uncompromising in my commitment to change”. “The road ahead for Labour” she said,”must be the radical road”. If you arouse these kinds of expectations, you simply have to deliver – especially when you are up against an SNP administration which is taking radical action on everything from local income tax to nuclear power; which has launched a major review of the constitution; and has put a bomb under every institution from BBC Scotland to Scottish Enterprise.
So far, her initiatives have either been tentative, counteproductive or essentially insignificant. It started with her brief campaign against “electronic stranger danger” which she launched on the eve of her election, claiming that “cotton wool kids” are more in danger at home than on the streets. Perfectly true, but since everyone agrees, more or less, with this proposition, it hardly marks out a distinct ideological territory for Scottish Labour. Similarly, everyone will applaud her call for affordable housing – but how? Abolishing tax breaks to second home owners? What?
Then, last week, she promised to drop her party’s emphasis on smaller class sizes. Why? There is perhaps an interesting academic debate to be had about just how important class sizes are in the learning process, but this is not the place for it. Teachers and parents are convinced that it is impossible to teach restless modern children in large classes, and so are the private schools – smaller class sizes are their unique selling point.
Worse was to come with the “Wendy house tax”. She announced a review of the council tax – no bad thing given its manifest unpopularity in Scotland. But in doing so she raised the prospect of a wholesale revaluation of Scottish property values, to provide the basis for a reformed property tax. Now, as it happens, I agree with her on this – you can’t have a tax on the value of houses which haven’t been valued since the early 1990s. But it is political madness to make this a defining issue in a new leadership since it arouses unnecessary anxiety among home owners already worried about their mortgages.
Wendy Alexander said she would be her boldest and most radical in her reform of the constitution. “A fresh look at the settlement holds no anxieties for me” she said, letting it be known that she supported “fiscal federalism” – a range of new tax powers to “strengthen the financial accountability of MSPs” . This really looked like a break with the past, a serious attempt to take on the Nationalists on their own ground, showing that the devolution settlement was not set in stone.
But what have we heard? Well, nothing – as far as I can see apart from inconclusive talks with the LibDems and the Tories. Yet, Ms Alexander had plenty of time on the backbenches to formulated a clear policy here. She even produced a Fraser of Allander paper in 2004 on fiscal federalism which talked favorably of handing to Holyrood control of taxes like stamp duty, excise duty, betting and gaming, and corporation tax. If she had really wanted to make an impact, why didn’t she get off the fence and back one of these options?
To be radical in this area you simply have to be specific. She could have said that she personally favoured, say, a share of corporation taxes to be raised in Scotland, much as is being proposed on Northern Ireland, or a share of oil revenues, or a beer tax to combat the drink problem. She could then have arranged with her mentor, Gordon Brown, for a Royal Commission or some such body to be set up to look at these proposals and make recommendations. You have to do more than just say you are going to be radical – you also have to act.
The root of the problem, remains her own inferior constitutional status within the Labour Party. Before she was elected, we were led to believe that Wendy Alexander was going to become, not just the leader of the Parliamentary group of Labour MSPs, but the leader of the Labour Party in Scotland. But we have heard nothing more about this. Instead we’ve had the Scottish Secretary Des Browne, putting her in her place and dismissing her own publicly-expressed view that “devolution is a process not an event”.
Like most in the Scottish media I have been willing to give the new Labour leader a fair wind, if only to allow some balance into coverage of Scottish politics. Alex Salmond has had it all his own way since May, and that is not how it should be in democratic politics. Everyone agreed that a woman leading the Scottish Labour Party is a good thing for Labour and a good thing for Scotland, where a lingering sneer of sexism is never far beneath the surface.
But Wendy has to do more than be female. She has to change the party too, and lead it imaginatively. If not, I fear we may find, after another six months of pointless rows, that history repeats itself, and that Wendy Alexander resigns – again – to spend more time with her family.