It may be the biggest overhaul in 90 years, but I’m not entirely sure what has changed in the Murphy Review of the constitution of the Scottish Labour Party. Mr Murphy says that he intends to make devolution a reality within the party. “From now on, whatever is devolved to the Scottish Parliament will be devolved to the Scottish Labour Party”.
But that has explicitly been the case since the Scotland Act in 1998. The Scottish Labour Party – to use the name Donald Dewar entrenched – publishes its own manifesto for Scottish elections, and were Labour not already devolved internally it would never have been able to enter into a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in Holyrood.
Is clear that Ed Miliband will still be the Labour Leader, pre-eminent in all ‘non-devolved issues’. Since controversial issues like corporation tax, oil revenues and the constitution are not devolved, this still leaves control pretty much where it is now – in Westminster. Indeed, these reforms will have to be ratified by the UK Labour Party Conference, and the Party leader – Ed Miliband.
The Scottish leader of the Scottish Labour Party will now be the leader of the Scottish Party, which is certainly a step in the right direction. But the centre of power in the party still resides in Westminster with the UK leadership. The review does not appear to set up a separate federal party in Scotland as has been recommended by the former labour First Minister Henry McLeish.
The biggest change will be to allow MPs to stand for the leadership, which is probably a good idea, since no one in the Scottish Parliament seems to be particularly capable or interested in leading the Scottish party. But it will play massively into Alex Salmond’s hands if the next leader is a Labour MP like Tom Harris – and he appears to be the only one interested in throwing his hat in the ring since Mr Murphy and ministers like Douglas Alexander are uninterested. I agree with Henry McLeish that the leader should be an MSP.
As for setting up a “political strategy board”, realigning constituency party boundaries and opening an office in Edinburgh – I think the scale of Labour’s electoral defeat requires something more than a rearrangement of deckchairs. This is not a move to rename Labour in Scotland, or create a new party as has been proposed for the Tories by their leadership candidate, Murdo Fraser. Strange that the Scottish Tories seem to be making all the running in Scottish politics right now.
A former used car salesman, a gay female kick-boxer and an MSP who wants to abolish his own party. The Scottish Tories certainly know how to attract attention. I mean – you wait years for the Scottish Conservatives to find someone interesting to lead them, and suddenly three come along at once.
And before anyone complains about my reference to Tory leadership candidate, Ruth Davidson’s, sexuality and her recreational pursuits – I make no apologies. That the Scottish Tories could soon be led by a lesbian shows just how far we have come in Scotland from the dark days when most Tories believed homosexuality to be a sin. It is a cause for celebration. Of course, her sexuality is not the only interesting thing about Ruth Davidson – I worked with her briefly at the BBC and she was an outstanding news and current affairs presenter. But like Obama in America, Davidson’s candidature is such a dramatic sign of the times that it is impossible to ignore the quality that defines her. She is a breath of fresh air.
However, I wouldn’t want to stretch the Obama comparison too far. Ms Davidson’s policy platform is pretty dull and conventional Tory stuff. No to changing the party name; no to more powers for Holyrood; no to saying sorry for Thatcher. Davidson was only six months old when The Lady came to power, and she says that like Disraeli, Thatcher is ancient history. Unfortunately a lot of voters in Scotland don’t think that way. They haven’t forgiven the poll tax or the wasteland Margaret Thatcher created in West Central Scotland through the programme of industrial closures. Ms Davidson’s real handicap is her lack of experience. She has only been an MSP for four months after all.
Her rival, Murdo Fraser, the capable deputy leader of the Tories in Holyrood, clearly realised that he would struggle to compete with Ruth Davidson for media attention. So he decided to go for broke, and offer himself as the candidate who would finally do what the Scottish voters have been trying to do for years: kill off the Tory Party. It was an audacious move that appears to have backfired. The proposal to ditch the “toxic” Tory label aroused the wrath of Tory grandees like Lord Forsyth, Lord Sanderson and David Mundell MP, as well as Davidson and Carlaw. Curiously, it was metropolitan Tories, like Michael Gove, David Cameron and Angus Maude who seemed to favour hiving off the Scottish Tories into a version of the Bavarian CSU.
Perhaps a leadership election was the wrong moment to propose this voluntary euthanasia. ‘Vote for me, and I’ll abolish your party’. It forced the other candidates to define themselves against the whole idea of re-engineering the Tories, which probably means it will never happen. The best time for changing the name would surely have been back in 1997, when the Tories lost all their MPs and subsequently lost the devolution referendum by a landslide. Then, the Tories could have said: ok, it’s a new Scotland, new parliament – time for a new party. But now, fourteen years later, it looks like an act of desperation. Jackson Carlaw, the somewhat less interesting candidate, must be hoping that he can come through the middle in this race. But if he wins, he will be taking over a party divided about its very existence.
But at least the Tories have interesting people with radical ideas who want to lead their Scottish party. Over at Labour they’re having trouble finding anyone half decent to stand as leader to replace Iain Gray, who led the party to its worst parliamentary defeat in 80 years. So far, the Westminster blogger, Tom Harris MP and the Scottish deputy leader, Johann Lamont, are the only ones to have thrown hats tentatively into the ring. Ms Lamont must be the favourite so far, if only because she is an MSP in Holyrood. A doughty fighter, whose facial expressions can kill at a hundred paces, she may not have the broad appeal that a Labour leader needs these days, now that the party needs to fight for every vote it can get. Ms Lamont would certainly scold Alex Salmond at question, but she lacks the intellectual depth of a Wendy Alexander or the stature of a Donald Dewar. Ken MacIntosh MSP, the nicely-spoken young man who sits for Eastwood is threatening to stand against Lamont – though eating and breakfast come to mind
Tom Harris made clear that he was really a stalking horse for someone of stature like Douglas Alexander, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, or Jim Murphy, the Shadow UK Defence Secretary, though neither have shown the slightest interest in giving up their Westminster careers for Holyrood. And therein lies the problem. For a UK Labour minister, the Scottish leadership is a big step down the greasy poll, if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphor. The Scottish leader isn’t even the leader – Ed Miliband is. In Labour’s centralised party structure, the Scottish “leader” is only the leader of he MSPs in Holyrood. Same difference, you may say – but for Labour politicians who want to be where the action is, it is in London not Edinburgh.
A committee led by Jim Murphy and the MSP Sarah Boyack is currently reviewing the rules for Scottish leadership elections, as well as trying to find a way out of the current electoral impasse. It is expected to call for a “loosening of the ties” with London Labour. I spoke to one very senior Scottish Labour figure who said he’d made a submission but hadn’t even had an acknowledgement.
A number of prominent figures like the former First Minister Henry McLeish want the commission to recommend that the Scottish Labour Party should become its own separate organisation – a bit like what Murdo Fraser is calling for, but without the name change. But don’t hold your breath. London Labour will not give up control lightly. It will take something like a declaration of UDI from the Scottish MSPs. And it may come to that – there is immense frustration in the Scottish Labour Party right now.
In the meantime, political initiative lies with the Scottish Tories. Who knows maybe it is their time again? That’s if they can remember what they’re called.