Wendy Alexander has walked out again, resigning her Paisley seat and citing the oldest and lamest excuse in politics, “to spend time with her family”. She leaves the Scottish Labour leader, Iain Gray, and fellow career women in the lurch. Though somehow, I don’t think this is the last we have heard of Wendy. Labour’s former Scottish leader has made something of a career out of resignation. She first walked out in 2002 as enterprise minister after a frantic 7.00 am encounter with the then First Minister Jack McConnell on his Wishaw doorstep.
Not having any family then, she spent more time with her academic contacts, and went on to marry the economist Professor Brian Ashcroft. She found her way back into government through her expertise on financial affairs (no pun intended) and became Scottish leader after Jack McConnell resigned following the 2007 election defeat. She was the only politician of substance left from the Dewar generation.
But not for long. Wendy resigned for the second time in 2008 after it emerged that she’d accepted an illegal campaign donation from a Jersey businessman. She had also infuriated Gordon Brown by calling for an SNP referendum on independence. That looked like Wendy’s goose finally cooked. But she worked her way on the back benches, and was even tipped to get Andy Kerr’s job as finance secretary after the May election – assuming Labour returns to power. But it was not to be – again.
Well, she certainly chooses her moments. Resignation 3.0 broke on the eve of the election campaign and in the week in which her leader, Iain Gray, had suffered not one, but two custard pies in the polls. The first was the Ipsos Mori poll which indicated that the SNP had wiped out Labour’s ten point lead and were now narrowly in the lead in the Holyrood race. Then a straw poll in the Scotsman showed that only 20% of voters in Scotland’s leading cities knew who he was. Mr Gray is living up to his reputation as the nowhere man of Scottish politics. Since Wendy Alexander was one of the very few publicly recognisable figures on the Scottish Labour benches, it is hard to think of a more damaging time to announce her departure.
Was she pushed? I doubt it. Did family call? Well , all politicians with young children face difficult choices and lashings of parental guilt. However, she managed to cope during the first five years of her twins’ lives, when mothers normally feel the pull of home the hardest. She will be spending more time with her children just as they are leaving for school. Which will leave a bit of a gap in the life of a figure who lives and breathes public life. Most believe Wendy went because: a, she thinks Gray is a loser; b, she wasn’t getting the finance job; and c, she’s got some post in mind in a university, the Lords, or maybe in some high flying financial outfit.
Or was it sexism? Wendy’s latest departure has been accompanied by the usual chorus of complaints about how difficult it is for women in politics, dominated as it is by nasty middle aged men and an intrusive and a cruel sexist media. Of course it is hard. Wendy was given a rough time by cartoonists, cybernat trolls and You Tube, who made fun of her mobile features and her relentless delivery. But that’s what public life is like, and if politicians like her are saying that they can’t handle it, what future is there for women in politics? No – this won’t do any more. Politics is a dog’s life for every politician – male and female. Ed Miliband has a young family and a mobile face and has suffered just as much ridicule in the media. Many women will be dismayed at this feminist role model saying that, after all, her place is in the home when the Scottish parliament is the most family friendly in Europe. MSPs only have to be there three days a week and they go home at 5.45.
Of course, it is regrettable that a politician of Wendy Alexander’s competence decides to throw in the towel. But it has less to do with sexism than the dire state of Labour politics in Scotland. The unidentifiable Iain Gray has been hoping to get into Bute House by stealth – by saying nothing, doing nothing, hearing nothing. Labour believes it has a divine right to rule in Scotland whenever there is a Tory government in Westminster. It is the default position of Scottish politics and, truth to tell, I suspect that, even with last week’s polls, Labour is still in line to take over from the SNP after the May election. But you have to ask: why?
What do they want to be in government to do? Defend jobs and services is the short answer – look after their mates in public bodies is the longer one. Raise council tax to pay for it. Make daft speeches against the “Tory Nats” for being in league with David Cameron. Iain Gray wants his turn atop the crumbling structure that is Labour Scotland. And once he’s there, he’ll probably do very little in case it jeopardises his chances of a seat in the Lords. The seat that his predecessor, Jack McConnell practically had to beg for because he had been too independent-minded. I suspect that this realisation is what finally forced Wendy to wander.
And if that is unfair, crypto-nationalist bile, then I say: prove me wrong. We’re told that there is going to be a policy blitz from Labour in the coming week. It’s about time. As far as I can tell, Labour stands – in this election – for 1: increasing council tax; 2, cutting health spending in real terms; 3, restoring university tuition fees in the form of a graduate contribution; 4 stuffing yet more people in jail who shouldn’t be there; 5 protecting supermarkets from proper taxation. Oh: and jobs, of course – theirs. No wonder they were so determined to keep the price of booze down. We’ll need it.