Triumphant Labour MPS were doling out the humble pie last week and force-feeding it to the political hacks. “F***ing brilliant”, one was overheard saying. Wendy was “in the clear” following her exoneration by the Electoral Commission. We journalists should all be ashamed of our “vendetta” against her, according to the Labour MSP George Foulkes .
Well, the court of public opinion will be the final arbiter of the donorgate affair, since of course no court of law will now consider it. SNP MSPs are saying it is one law for politicians, another for the general public. But actually, its more a case of one law for Wendy and another for Peter.
Peter Hain, had to resign because he failed to register donations to his campaign. Yet, the pensions secretary had not “knowingly” or “intentionally” broken the law either – in fact his donations, while much larger than Wendy’s, were at least legal. It was administrative incompetence that led to his late declarations. Can he, in fairness, be prosecuted under this law, since it has now been established that ignorance IS a defence? So much for “strict liability”.
But everyone in Holyrood is heaving a sigh of relief that we don’t have to spend any longer on petty party donations. The wider question, now, is whether Wendy’s vindication marks a new beginning for Labour in Scotland. Labour are hoping that they’ve reached bottom, and that the only way from here is up. In their dreams.
When Wendy said that the donations affair was a “distraction” from ‘real’ politics, she was right – though for the wrong reasons. The Electoral Commission’s belated verdict last week diverted attention from the tirade of criticism the Labour leader was receiving for her handling of the budget vote in parliament. “Humiliation”, “shambles”, “mince” was the verdict of the Scottish press in one of the most sustained assaults on a leader’s competence that I can remember.
A note of contempt is creeping into press treatment of Wendy Alexander’s leadership, which is curious because until she became leader, she had a lot of friends in the media. She was regarded as an intelligent, open-minded moderniser who would take the party out of its male-dominated West of Scotland ghetto and into the mainstream of Scottish politics. Her cross-party commission for more powers for the parliament chimes with most editorial opinion in Scotland. But she is being ridiculed, almost pilloried.
Her repertoire of facial tics and grimaces is a gift to photographers, and newspapers have taken to running collages of Wendy faces revealing the full range of her contortions. There is a particularly damaging video which has been playing widely on on Youtube, in which some unkind soul has edited one of her interviews with Glen Campbell cutting her words and leaving only her grimaces.
Why so nasty to Wendy? Well, partly it is her manner and her approach to politics which a lot of people find off-putting. Her continual references to her integrity and reputation over the last ten weeks – as if it was ‘all about me’ – hasn’t helped. Nor did her attempt to drag other senior politicians by name into the donations row. She has fallen out with some Labour local authorities, over ring-fencing, and some Labour MPs over the constitution. She hasn’t had a lot of success with her own press officers either, and has lost three of them despite being leader for only five months.
FMQs is really just a bear-baiting session, but it is important in revealing and shaping a politician’s public image, and Wendy Alexander has not got the measure of this yet. She has been eclipsed by a revived Nicol Stephen, the LibDem leader, who has been asking well-researched and thoughtful questions. And by the Tory leader Annabel Goldie who is turning into something of a star turn.
Of course, she is up against the master of the withering put-down, in Alex Salmond. Labour say that the press has been hypnotised by the First Minister, and there is something in that. But perhaps it’s because the performance of the FM and his ministerial team has been mesmerising. The finance secretary, John Swinney’s, efficient and decisive handling of the first SNP budget in history received rave review. He piloted the SNP’s spending policies safely onto the statute book despite having only 47 out of 129 MSPs.
Actually, if it’s humble pie time, then hacks like me should really be apologising to Swinney. Nine months ago I said that there was no way the SNP would be able to get its programme through the budget process unscathed because they simply lacked the numbers in parliament. I was wrong; they did – through guile and negotiation. Labour’s failure to exploit the unionist majority and to shred Swinney’s budget in committee was bad enough, but their decision to vote down their own amendment on skills in the final vote turned incompetence into farce. They couldn’t follow the logic of their position and vote the budget down for fear of forcing an election which would likely return an SNP landslide. The Labour-supporting Daily Record said it left Labour with “egg on their faces”
Labour’s claim that there had been a “fix” with the Tories – the “useful idiots of separatism” as the Labour finance spokesman Iain Gray put it – amounted to a statement of the bleedin’ obvious, since any minority government has to do deals. The question is why Labour didn’t manage to do their own dealing, using their strength to mould the Swinney budget in their image. Instead they indulged in spectator politics, jeering from the sidelines while Swinney got on with the job.
The Tories got a few more police – not the 1,000 they wanted – and they got an acceleration of the reduction of business rates and something on drug rehab. But there was nothing here that caused real trouble for Alex Salmond. He can legitimately say now that he has delivered a substantial chunk of his “social democratic” manifesto – freezing council tax, abolishing bridge tolls, student fees, prescription charges etc. – on the strength of argument alone, not force of numbers.
It’s what he said he would do when he was elected First Minister, and you cannot help being impressed. It won’t last, of course – in politics it never does. But the SNP have demonstrated something very important and enduring: that minority government – as envisaged by the ‘founding fathers’ of the Scottish Constitutional Convention – can work, and work well.
Last week has also finally demonstrated that this SNP administration is not an overnight affair but an accomplished and purposeful government which will be hard to dislodge. Wendy Alexander’s challenge is to find some political answer to this. She needs to discover some wit at First Minister’s question; develop a coherent critique of progressive nationalism; make progress on reforming the UK constitution; and invent a distinctive set of domestic policies.
But above all, she needs to demonstrate that she is the real leader of the Labour Party in Scotland, and has the authority to take her party in a radically different direction. She bought a breathing space, she has until the European election next year to get her act together. If she has one.