Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont resigned in a shock announcement on Friday night, citing too much interference from the Westminster party in affairs north of the border which left her position “untenable”.
However, the more interesting revelation from Lamont’s departure was that she likened the party’s Westminster MPs to “dinosaurs” who were getting in the way of what she perceived as much-needed progress on the issue of devolution. Labour’s proposals of further powers for Scotland are by far the weakest of the five Scottish parties, and that is something that did not reconcile with Lamont’s assertion in the independence campaign that Labour were the “party of devolution”.
In fairness to Lamont, she has picked an opportune moment to leave – as the crisis in her party continues to deepen and potentially catastrophic defeats in the 2015 UK General Election and 2016 Scottish Parliament election lie ahead. Labour needs to have a radical change of policy and direction and Lamont has recognised that without change from the top then there will be little chance to stop the rot that has set in after what has become an ever more pyrrhic victory in the independence referendum.
Between now and the start of the year, Scottish Labour desperately need to rebrand to reclaim some sense of respect from the Scottish people. It is hardly an outlandish suggestion that a large portion of the SNP’s massive new membership will be made up of former Labour supporters who are disheartened that their party chose to ridicule Yes supporters as nationalist dreamers. In the final polls, it appeared that as much as 40% of those who identified themselves as Labour people were going to vote Yes, which is a massive amount considering that the party was staunchly pro-Union. It was always questionable whether the party’s strategy would pull off for its’ own benefit post-referendum, but with their support in polls for next year’s General Election in Scotland dive-bombing and the real possibility that they might fall short of a majority government by losing key seats to the SNP, then it’s clear that Labour have rolled the dice and lost.
Scottish Labour are now being attacked from all sides, and swift action needs to be taken to address the fundamental problems that lie at the heart of the organisation. Former leaders and First Ministers Henry McLeish and Lord McConnell have both sounded the alarm in recent weeks, and it’s one that needs to be heeded across the Scottish contingent – including in Westminster. With the inherent threat that the Tories’ English Votes for English Laws policy poses to Labour’s future ability to govern in Westminster, Labour need to be strong in Scotland – where the Tories will not succeed in winning seats and where they can muster support. That support will only exist, however, if they can manage to convince the public to back Scottish Labour as a whole, in the Scottish and Westminster parliaments.
Picking a new leader will be a monumental challenge for Scottish Labour – hardly the coronation that Nicola Sturgeon has earned across the chamber. The only real politicians with street credibility in the party are Westminster figures such as Douglas Alexander, Jim Murphy and Gordon Brown, although the latter may be dissuaded from the backlash he’s endured in recent weeks with his naïve statements that the Westminster government aren’t doing enough to push Scottish devolution. Whether or not these politicians can really change the party’s course is unclear though, as it will seem exactly as Johann Lamont said in her outgoing interview that the Westminster bloc had too much power (the irony being lost on her, no doubt). In the Scottish Parliament, deputy and now acting leader Anas Sarwar may want to step up to the plate and perhaps other shadow cabinet secretaries such as James Kelly or Kezia Dugdale might fancy a go. Of course, the real question is who wants to take on the position when it appears to be such as poisoned chalice. Being the fall-guy/girl for the next two elections could see the leader’s career go down in flames without a chance to prove that it wasn’t them to blame. The next leader will need to have a radical change of strategy, but also the political firepower to fight through what will be a seriously challenging eighteen months on a personal level.
It’s just over six months now until the General Election, so Scottish Labour will need to act fast to repair the damage that has been done to their party in the last six weeks or so. With many major political fights going on – the Smith Commission, rise of UKIP and potential EU referendum to name but a few – they need to be in a solid shape to fight their corner and provide a real choice for those who can’t bear to imagine the right-wing dominance of the Tories and UKIP in British politics. There’s a real chance that they will not be able to be fully fit for either election, and if not, the Labour party will be resigned to years in the political wilderness. So much for winning the referendum, eh?