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Change is what Wendy cannot do

“Change Is What We Do” – or so says the title of Wendy Alexander’s latest mission statement. I’m tempted to say: what – leaders? But that would be cheap. As it happens, neither of the last two Scottish Labour leaders will be in Aviemore to hear Ms Alexander address the party’s annual conference this weekend. Jack McConnell will be in Malawi and Henry McLeish in America. Change is as good as a rest.

Change is also the most irksome cliché in modern politics, and it’s time politicians dumped it. We’ve had Obama’s “audacity of change”, the SNP’s “time for a change”, and Gordon Brown’s “age of change”. We need a change of change. The ‘c’ word is only used by politicians because it is meaningless.

There is very little actual change in Wendy’s document, apart from scrapping her predecessor’s flagship policy of raising the school leaving age to 18. She hints at assigning a portion of VAT to the Scottish parliament – if Labour’s Constitutional Commission ever gets to work – but points out that this would fall foul of European rules.

Wendy’s epistle to the Labourites should have been called “the more things change the more they stay the same” since it is largely an appeal to Labour’s radical civic and socialist roots. She rightly reminds us that the NHS, social housing and home rule were originally Labour policies. She could also do with reminding her own UK ministers too sometimes. But Wendy goes on insist, bizarrely, that Glasgow’s stalled housing stock transfer – which she launched when she was a Scottish minister – is “firmly in the traditions of John Wheatley” the architect of municipal socialism in the 1920s.

Really? Wheatley’s Housing Act launched mass council house building and fair rents; Scottish Labour in office built no houses at all, sold the best council houses and attempted to to part-privatise the remainder in a botched attempt at community ownership. No Wendy, you are not John Wheatley

Nor is it credible for the party that has presided over the most obscene enrichment of the wealthy over the last decade – as celebrated recently by the Business Secretary, John Hutton – to start claiming to be champions of the poor and dispossessed. Wendy says that Labour is dedicated to ensuring that “power and wealth” is redistributed to “the many not the few”. They must think we were born yesterday. This is the same New Labour that has schmoozed the City and flattered the super-rich, soliciting donations from millionaire businessmen who subsequently found themselves nominated for peerages they didn’t deserve.

Okay, I sound like Mr Angry, but like a lot of people who come from a Labour background, I have a kind of revulsion at Labour’s recent attempts to airbrush history now that it is out of office and suddenly short of a vote or two. The reason Labour is in its present state in Scotland is largely because it has allowed other parties to colonise its social democratic agenda – while Gordon Brown allowed private equity barons to pay less tax than their cleaners, and non-domiciled plutocrats to avoid paying any tax at all on their foreign wealth. Iraq? Trident? Nuclear Power? I’m sorry Wendy but we won’t be fooled again.

So, what else has changed? Well, it is confirmed in the document that Labour’s Constitutional Commission will look at handing powers back to Westminster from Holyrood, in areas such “counter terrorism and contingency planning”. Now, I don’t want to be picky, but I’m not sure that counter-terrorism is actually devolved. Security and anti-terrorism measures are certainly reserved powers for the Westminster. As for contingency planning – will Scottish police forces have to give up the planning of events like the G8 summit?

But people are entitled to say: what commission? We have heard very little about this cross party body since it was announced with much fanfare last year. It doesn’t even have a chair yet. The
Liberal Democrats have been so worried about the drift that they reconvened their
own Steel Commission on constitutional reform as a means of geeing it up.

Scottish Labour MPs mutter about appeasing the “McChattering classes” and shake their heads about all this constitutional tinkering and deals with the Libdems. People don’t vote on constitutional abstractions and distractions, they say. And they have a point – especially right now. Scottish Labour has a real fight on its hands because the SNP is making
progress in voting intentions for Westminster. The latest opinion poll from MRUK Cello suggests that the nationalists are drawing level with Labour in terms of voting share for
Westminster elections.

The SNP strategy for 2009 – or whenever the next general election is called – will be similar to the approach of the
Parti Quebecois in Canada, which in 1990 turned itself in to the “Bloc
Quebecois” for the purposes of fighting federal elections in alliance with other parties. The BQ’s mission statement is not independence as such but “defence of the interests of all Quebecois in Ottawa” (the equivalent of Westminster).

Similarly, the ‘Bloc SNP’ will not
campaign in 2009 will ask the voters, not about constitutional reform, VAT or the significance of Sewell motions, but: ‘Who is best placed to fight Scotland’s
corner?’. Moreover, with the prospect of a hung
parliament in Westminster in 2009 – just look at Labour’s UK poll slide
– this bloc could have very considerable influence on UK politics.

Given its subordinate status within the UK Labour Party Scottish Labour is going to have real difficulty dealing with this challenge. Remember, Wendy
Alexander isn’t the leader of the party in Scotland – as Labour MPs will always remind her – but only the leader of
the MSPs in Holyrood. The SNP will portray her as a puppet or poodle
of Westminster, unable to prevent imposts like whisky taxes, withdrawal of council tax benefits, budget cuts. Given the performance of the SNP government over the last year, who is to say the Scottish voters might not listen?

Make no mistake it could lead to the disintegration of the Labour Party in Scotland. There will be calls from supporters of the “Compass” ginger group this weekend for Labour north of the border to make a decisive break with the New Labour. To adopt explicitly social democratic and Scottish policies. Wendy Alexander can do this in rhetoric, by appealing to Labour’s socialist past, John Wheatley and all, but she cannot do it in practice because she is the protégé of the Prime Minister, the architect of New Labour. This is one change she cannot make.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


One thought on “Change is what Wendy cannot do

  1. Iain if only Scotland had as much autonomy as Quebec. However the way that the Labour party are treating the UK is similar to the way in which they have treated Scotland for decades.Manipulate the electoral system lie ,cheat ,bribe whatever it takes to stay in power. I for one hope the Labour party go the same way as the Conservatives as they have been in power to long.

    Posted by Anonymous | March 25, 2008, 9:49 pm

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