A very Westminster coup

There have now been six leaders of the Scottish Labour Party since the inauguration of Holyrood fifteen years ago. Donald Dewar was a victim of the grim reaper, Jack McConnell and Ian Gray the voters, and Henry McLeish and Wendy Alexander lack of support from ‘comrades’ in Westminster. Johann Lamont’s downfall was made and plotted at the Palace as was Jim Murphy’s successful campaign.

Henry’s downfall was due to his support for free personal care, the major policy difference of the Scottish Executive to what was happening in the rest of the UK – this showing up was resented by the Labour Government and the majority of Scottish Labour MPs who started briefing that he was not up to the job. Wendy’s calling for a referendum on independence to challenge the SNP was slapped down by Gordon Brown and she trounced off in the huff.

Johann’s efforts were constantly compromised by Labour’s UK policies, especially on austerity and welfare ‘reform’. Who can forget Jackie Baillie exhorting the SNP Government to do more to alleviate the hardships from the ‘bedroom tax’ while being unable to say that Labour would abolish it – it took them nearly a year to say they would!

Johann’s own statements supporting targeted benefits and on a something for nothing society did not help her image. Her position was further undermined by Scottish MPs watering down Labour’s already weak further devolution proposals – the Herald described them as ‘a coor and timorous beastie’. To say that she was side-lined during the referendum campaign would be an understatement.

Most Scottish Labour MPs have little to do at Westminster but complain about being ignored and to plot. When, after the referendum, the polls showed Labour support plummeting the plotting went into overdrive, their sinecures were threatened as were the chances of Labour having an overall majority in forthcoming general election.

They blamed Johann’s performance rather than their own policies. They thought the ‘big beasts’ from Westminster had taken over the ‘no’ campaign from the junior team at Holyrood and won the referendum. They did not realise the vote had been won on fear, denigrating Scotland’s economic performance, joining with the toxic ConDem Coalition in Better Together, announcing a solemn vow which would not be kept and not understanding the backlash which many of us warned would happen.

A letter of no confidence in Johann was circulated (I understand by one of the whips). The final straw was the sacking of the party’s Scottish General Secretary without Johann even being told far less consulted – this must have been agreed by Milliband.

With Murphy standing as leader it was necessary that the deputy was an MSP or it would be seen as a complete Westminster takeover. Co-incidentally, Anas Sarwar MP announced he was standing down as Deputy and was rewarded with a junior front bench position. The circumstances truly justified Johann’s description of Scottish Labour as a ‘branch office’.

Murphy and his gang thought there would be a coronation, especially using the undemocratic electoral college system which meant that a single MP/MSP/MEP’s vote was worth that of 160 members and a minimum of 10 parliamentary nominations were needed to stand. Again they miscalculated. There were still socialists in the party and others on the soft left and the centre that understood we needed radical policies and leaders with a left track record to win back our traditional working class support. The Labour Campaign for Socialism and the Red Paper Collective lead the fight to ensure a contest and choice for members and affiliates.

Neil Findlay MSP received 12 nominations. An ex-bricklayer and teacher, he has had life experience outwith politics and with a left track record supporting victimised miners and blacklisted building workers. He stated at the outset that he wanted to put clear ‘red water’ between Labour and the other parties. Katy Clark MP standing as deputy received 11 nominations. A former trade union lawyer she has an exemplary record voting against invading Iraq and opposing Trident.

Sarah Boyack MSP, the centrist candidate, an ex-planner and lecturer scraped in with 10 nominations. Jim Murphy MP, ex-student activist and then party organiser with no job outwith politics received 42 nominations.

Murphy epitomises everything that is wrong with the Labour Party in Scotland. He has been closely associated with the right-wing, pro-business group, Progress, which has been the torchbearer for Blairism.

He has backed foundation hospitals and market reforms in the NHS, voted for means-tested welfare reforms that have targeted the poor and the vulnerable and supported austerity and the renewal of Trident. He has backed the disastrous Iraq War, and made it clear he would have liked to see military action against Syria last year. He was a strong advocate of university tuition fees; although for reasons of political expediency he has now done a U-turn on this policy.

Kezia Dugdale MSP standing as deputy had been a parliamentary policy assistant with a New Labour history. Though with no formal alliance, she was Murphy’s running mate and received 51 nominations mainly from the same parliamentarians who supported him.

The election campaign, with the candidate’s policy statements and well attended hustings energised and involved party members and affiliates. For the first time in over a decade Labour had a debate about its policies and direction. TV and radio debates, and newspaper interviews and articles also caught the interest of the general public – many of whom had written Labour off as a party representing the Scottish working class.

The election campaign also forced Murphy to perform more U-turns than a plumber on bonus. A number of commentators described his policies position as ‘adaptable’. He received far the largest and most favourable media coverage especially from the unionist/Tory Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph. However, sadly ‘facts are chiels that winna ding’. The arithmetic was always against the left ticket. Murphy and Dugdale won comfortably by even a bigger majority than I anticipated.

MSPs     Members      Affiliated    Total

Murphy    22.36     20.14              13.26           55.77
Findlay       6.75      10.89              17.34          34.99
Boyack       4.22        2.3                  2.73             9.24

Dugdale     28.63    22.22              12.13           62.89
Clark             4.7       11.22               21.2             37.11

Since being elected Murphy has consolidated his position – Findlay and Boyack have been given low profile positions in a front bench dominated by right wingers. Also, he has ‘appointed’ Brian Roy, the son of Frank Roy MP and one of his nominees, as General Secretary of the Scottish Labour Party though under the existing constitution he does not have the power to do so. This is the constitution he revised 3 years ago with Sarah Boyack to give more power to the Scottish Party and now says is not fit for purpose.

In 1997, when I was Scottish party treasurer, in the run up to the first Holyrood Election, the Scottish Executive proposed a new constitution which gave the party in Scotland control over all devolved matters. The NEC agreed this in principle but when the new constitution appeared, London had kept control. Maybe Murphy will be third time lucky!

An analysis of the votes for the New Labour candidates are damming for Labour as a party of radical change and their chances of electoral success in the foreseeable future. The parliamentarians were predictable and highlights how out of touch they are with the majority of the Scottish electorate.

The members’ section vote confirmed that a substantial majority are now ‘new’ Labour, many job holders/seekers and their supporters. Most left wingers have left the party in disgust and despair. Those staying are mainly older.

To me as a lifelong trade unionist, the affiliates’ vote was the most worrying. Despite getting the endorsement of majority of unions, Neil only narrowly beat Murphy. Polling showed that a majority of union members voted ‘yes’ in the referendum and some may have perversely voted for Murphy as they saw him as an electoral handicap for Labour.

My own assessment is that many trade unionists in Scotland sickened by Labour’s record and continued support for more austerity cuts, attacks on welfare and anti-union laws have given up on Labour as a party to represent the interests of working people and their families and simply decided it was not worth voting. Hence, the low turnout in the affiliates’ vote.

Despite a well organised, well-argued campaign, the left in the Scottish Labour Party only managed a third of the vote. Murphy’s election as Leader has not given the party the bounce on polling that some predicted – the electorate know a snake oil salesman when they see him!

The prospects at the General Election in May 2015, the Scottish elections the next year and council elections the following do not look good for Labour. The SNP has a reasonable record, especially on social justice issues but they are too centrist and remain committed to neo-liberal economic policies. It is also starting to show ‘new’ Labour tendencies in party control and choice of candidates.

There are dangers to democracy with one party having too much domination. Scotland needs a real socialist alternative, and if Labour won’t step up to the mark, it faces terminal decline as a mainstream party in Scotland.

Bob Thomson is a member of Glasgow Southside Constituency Labour Party and a former Chairman and Treasurer of the Scottish Labour Party