Rien ne va plus – no more bets, ladies and gentlemen. Nominations closed for the position of Scottish Labour leader on the 4th November. The call had inauspicious beginnings – by the end of the first day, noone had declared, and the media were frantically having to run stories of people being ‘the favourite’ in a field of precisely zero confirmed candidates. That ‘favourite’, of course, was Big Jim Murphy – as the silence grew from him, one wag commented that his Irn Bru crate was “in heated discussions with the Labour leadership should Murphy rule himself out.” The reluctance was understandable – and perhaps most succinctly summarised by the STV’s spoof politics page: “Both of Scottish Labour’s members will cast their vote in the next few weeks to decide who will lose to Nicola Sturgeon in the 2016 Holyrood elections.”
The tub of lard from ‘Have I Got News For You’ (Roy Hattersley’s emergency stand-in for one show) seemed an equally plausible candidate (the Sun also promoted a Brick into the spotlight from its coy Facebook page candidacy), as MSPs and MPs danced around the poisoned chalice sitting amidst their collective handbags, waiting to see who would jump…and with whom. Anas Sarwar having stepped down, it became a ‘meal combo’ ticket – perm your favourite meal combo from MP and MSP baskets, balance London and Scotland, right and (tokenistic) left wings of the party, male and female, union-friendly and union-hostile…
It brought back memories to me, of when somewhat-less-than-Red Ed was first elected leader of the Labour Party. I remember watching it live with my partner, as he stole the position from his (supposedly) more terrifyingly right wing brother (but – really?) when key union support delivered the party to him. Those were happier, more optimistic times – and I cannot but also let that memory lead me to that similarly false dawn of Blair’s election in 1997, with Professor Brian Cox’s ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ pumping through the air. If only we had known – in both cases – what had just been elected, the positivity would have been short-lived indeed.
Leaving to one side Blair’s delivery of the Scottish Parliament (which clearly Labour hoped would be enough to neuter any dissatisfaction in Scotland over poor governance from Westminster), the ensuing thirteen years of failing to repeal any of the Conservative Government’s anti-union laws, failing to reform the House of Lords – and developing an appetite for war more associated with the party they had expelled from Downing Street – have been sobering indeed, and have done more to break traditional Scottish Labour voters ties to the Party than the SNP ever did.
I am not going to pretend to have the necessary understanding of the complex electoral college system that Labour will employ to choose between the union-friendly Findlay, the safe-pair-of-hands Boyack or the roaring right wing abuser from East Renfrewshire. Of the three of them, the media have already anointed their Chosen One – the Westminsterian Murphy. Initial ideas that the unions would back Findlay have fallen away, with a sense now that in the face of polls showing electoral meltdown for Scottish Labour, there might be an urge to go for a ‘strong’ leader in Big Jim, and any remaining progressive aspects of the party would grin and bear it as they voted for a pro-Trident, pro-war candidate. Recent polls also seem to show rank and file Labour supporters moving towards him (28% support, according to a November poll, taken prior to candidates being announced, but including all those who subsequently declared) perhaps having bought into the BBC’s hero worship campaign.
And in related news today we read the results of the Rochester and Strood by-election, where UKIP threw out a 9,000 Conservative majority, the LibDems polled only marginally ahead of the Monster Raving Loony Party, and Ed Miliband again unconvincingly expressed his resolve to resist the rise of UKIP after his party’s support dropped by almost 12%. The battlecry in Scotland is similar – we are told that a vote for the SNP is a vote for the Conservatives, and we should all be voting Labour. Actually, the voting records do not bear that theory out at all – Labour’s support in Scotland has stayed evenly between 920,000 and 1.33 million over 70 years, and the surges in SNP support seem to mainly coincide with Labour getting into Westminster.
But – leaving facts to one side – I do understand that many in Scotland might end up wanting to vote Labour to keep the Conservatives out, perhaps out of instinct, but I do have to wonder if Labour, with Miliband at the helm, really has any appeal as a candidate for Westminster leader to the Labour voters in Scotland?
In that sense, whomsoever gets the Scottish branch office job should be prepared to act as a palatable mask in Scotland for Ed – so that people do not have to think so much about him becoming Prime Minister. Because convincing as a leader – whether party or garden fete – is something that he is not.