Biff, bash, bosh. The Scottish Labour Party is engaged in its favourite pursuit: personal infighting. Better together? Speaking together would be a start. As so often at key moments in modern Scottish history, what we hear from Labour is muffled yells from within the organisation as factions fight it out on North/South lines, or on East/West, or Right/Left lines – any lines you care to mention
Better Together, the Labour-led campaign against independence should be capitalising on its best month yet. The Olympics have breathed belated life into the idea of a United Kingdom; the EC President, Jose Manuel Barroso, has torpedoed the SNP’s policy on EU membership; Alex Salmond has threatened to break up the BBC; Iain Duncan-Smith is imposing controversial welfare reforms on Scotland while the SNP government seems obsessed with the wording of a referendum question that won’t be put for two years and which the majority of Scots appear to think is an irrelevance. Alex Salmond has been booed in public, for heaven’s sake.
Doesn’t take a genius to realise that the SNP government is finally experiencing that “mid-term” unpopularity that afflicts all governments eventually. Yet, Labour seems determined to divert attention from all this by indulging in organisational civil war. Forget The Thick of It – they should make a black comedy out of the life and times of John Smith House.
The story so far: tough, street-wise Johann Lamont, has been installed as the first “proper” boss of the Scottish party. But all has not gone well. Team Lamont has run up against Team Labour, a collection of senior party figures who were appointed by the UK party, including scheming David Smyth, the party general secretary, and silver-tongued Rami Okasha, the director of communications. Lamont’s spin doctor, Paul Sinclair, who used to work for capo di tutti capo, Gordon Brown, had a beef with Okasha, which resulted in the latter’s suspension for “insubordination”.
Meanwhile, Smyth has gone to sleep with the fishes after being held responsible for the disastrous 2011 Scottish election campaign – but, er, not for the successful 2010 general election campaign when Labour won a million votes in Scotland, or the successful 2012 local election campaign which halted the nationalist advance in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen. Okasha has been defended by some in the party who say he was the only one who seemed to put in the hours. Labour MPs in London are watching events with concern, afraid that the party organisation in Scotland might be turned over to a bunch of toon cooncillors who couldn’t run a pie shop. The UK leader, Ed Miliband, is thought to be distraught, since he needs a good result in Scotland in the general election of 2015 if he is to become Prime Minister. Meanwhile a whole league table of old scores has been reopened as the party in the West, based in Glasgow’s JSH, arm wrestles with the new party in the East which will be based at Edinburgh’s Holyrood. There will be blood.
Now, this has generated great amusement amongst Nationalists, who like nothing better than watching Labour fighting with itself while the SNP remains scarily united. The Scottish National Party used to be a byword for internecine rivalry – just think of the 30-years war between Alex Salmond v. the former deputy leader, Jim Sillars. But the SNP discovered in the late 1990s that, while it was great fun to fall out with each other, they did much better in elections when they worked together.
It’s not that disagreements don’t happen in the SNP: many senior party members have been unhappy at Alex Salmond’s apparent determination to lose the independence referendum by including a devolution max option on the ballot paper. But none of this ever becomes public. It’s all kept in the family. Nato too arouses strong passions but not, so far, actual splits. The Tories used to say that unity was their secret weapon, well it seems that the SNP has stolen it from them.
What does all this mean? Well, it could mean the end for the UK. A house divided is a house defeated and if Labour doesn’t get its act together in Scotland then the unionist forces won’t either. Better Together is nominally a cross-party campaign composed of Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour, but the first two partners realise that they need to keep a low profile unless they want to propel Scotland out of the UK. The Liberal Democrats have been vying with the Tories as political pariahs in Scotland and David Cameron’s involvement only assists SNP efforts to make the words “Union” and “Tory” appear synonymous. So, it is left to Labour, and its new Scottish leader, Johann Lamont, to save the Union of 300 years.
Now many unkind things have been said about Johann Lamont, not least about her appearance by sexist commentators who wouldn’t comment on the appearance of male politician. Charismatic she is not, but Lamont does at least take her job seriously and she is tough. She is right to assert her authority over the party and to make clear that things have changed. The old days when the Scottish party had no effective leader are over, and as any proper leader knows, you cannot have power unless you control patronage – the power to make appointments. You have to have your own people around you.
Similarly, Lamont had to demonstrate that the days when the UK Labour organisation appeared to call the shots in Scotland are over. The former First Minister, Jack McConnell, despaired at his treatment by UK Labour, which seemed to regard the post of First Minister of Scotland as roughly equivalent to council leader in an English metropolitan authority. Johann Lamont had to declare her own organisational UDI to make her leadership credible in Scotland. For London control freaks and Scottish factionalists, this was always going to be hard to swallow.
So, a settling of accounts was inevitable. The trouble is that Labour has a tendency to leave itself crippled after cathartic episodes such as these, that have marked the long slow decline of Labour in Scotland. It remains to be seen whether Johann Lamont can ensure that this time, it’s different.