David Cairns is being described as an obscure Scottish politician of whom we know nothing. That may be true in England, but not north of the border, where Cairns is well known and respected as one of the brightest and ablest politicians in the Scottish parliamentary group, and a sound media performer. The departure of the Scotland Office minister has caused blank astonishment among the Scottish political classes precisely because he seemed the ultimate party loyalist. If Cairns can turn against his leader then anyone can.
There may be no evil genius orchestrating this rebellion – except perhaps the leak machine in Number Ten – but the “revolt of the clones” seems pretty effective nevertheless. First “Blair’s Babes” burned their pagers and demanded a leadership election. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/7616243.stm Then the Lancashire Mafia, led by MP George Howarth stuck in their knives, along with left wingers like the former minister, Peter Kilfoyle. Now the Scots – supposedly the last bastion of Brownism – have broken ranks. This is a multicultural, cross -gender, north-south, left-right rebellion led by people who never normally rebel. That’s what makes it so damaging.
Cairns is well equipped to deliver the message that something must be done. He had the misfortune to be Labour’s official spokesman for the Glasgow East by-election, when Labour lost its third safest seat in Scotland on a 22% swing to the Scottish National Party. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/glasgow_and_west/7522153.stm It was a salutary experience discovering that, in the very citadel of Scottish Labourism, in the constituency of John Wheatley, Labour’s core vote was disintegrating. Cairns genuinely believes that doing nothing, while Labour is 20 points behind the “vacuous Tories” as he describes them, is morally indefensible.
Nor can Labour afford to hand Scotland over to the SNP which is effectively what is happening Nowhere is Brown more of an electoral liability than in his homeland. This may sound surprising given Scotland’s propensity to big up its favourite sons. But there is widespread disillusion, verging on a sense of betrayal, among Labour’s Scottish tribe over their leader’s performance. He’s become a national embarrassment.
The Scots wanted a clean break from Blairite ‘modernisation’; they got Blairism with an unacceptable face. They hoped for someone who understood Labour’s roots and would return to recognisably social democratic policies. What they did not expect what the scrapping of the ten pence tax band and bungs to the wealthy like the abolishing of inheritance tax on £600,000 estates. The proposal for tackling the energy crisis by loft insulation has gone down particularly badly in a cold country where a lot of working people still live in tenements and don’t have lofts to insulate.
Cairns was a Roman Catholic priest before he entered politics and represents a Christian socialist tradition which is still very much alive in West Central Scotland. He was a researcher to the rebel MP, Siobhain McDonogh, who was sacked last week for calling for nomination papers to be distributed to MP to precipitate a leadership election. Cairns says is was the abrupt dismissal of the matter by Labours National Executive Committee that finally forced him out.
With its chilling bureaucratic prose it certainly sounded like a decree from the desk of the Dear Leader. A statement released by the NEC chair Dianne Hayter said. “The Labour Party national executive committee is in agreement that internal procedural debates will not divert the Labour Party from our mission of building a fairer Britain and helping people through these challenging times”.
Well, increasingly, Labour MPs see Brown as the great diversion. Cairns is being denounced throughout the party organisation as a “traitor”. But he is also a realist. There is no way out for Gordon Brown. If ministers like Cairns have been prepared to sacrifice their careers, then it is surly time for someone in cabinet to have the cojones to do likewise. David Miliband must realise that if he doesn’t act now, he will lose the moment and end up as a footnote to history.
Cairns is convinced that Number Ten has been ‘outing’ disaffected party insiders, like himself, as a means of marginalising them. If so, it has been counterproductive, creating instead a rolling rebellion. It is a mirror image of the turbulence that preceded the 2006 Labour conference, and ultimately led to Tony Blair having to set a date for his departure. We’re not there yet, but pretty soon critical mass will be reached, and the clamour for change will become so widespread it cannot be ignored.