Tom Harris, the sole MP in the – less a race than a meander in a bog – Scottish Labour leadership contest, has found the touchstone for the party’s loss of support in Scotland and has identified an instance that is proof of a protectionist parochialism it does not know how to leave behind.
Is a combative analysis, Harris has said – memorably: ‘We used to be a movement – now we’re a monolith.’
There could not be a more striking summation or one more succinctly put.
Harris’s metaphor sets movement against fixity and that is the disease. Scottish Labour, like Lot’s wife in the biblical story, has looked back in its unthought attempt to leave the bad old times – and has become Harris’s monolith.
Being a movement means both leading change and being responsive to it. Scottish Labour has been unable to deliver either.
Given two opportunities to lead, it was unable to shift its mindset from being the third division team in the provinces carrying out a given brief from London and neither able nor interested to think for itself.
Seeing genuine change instituted by another party, it has simply been mesmerised into paralysis by the SNP administrations’ confident and largely competent government of Scotland.
The strength of the SNP is that it has Salmond and Sturgeon on the bridge, Swinney as the chief engineer and Russell and Lochhead as joint First Mates. The rest of the ministerial team are well managed but run of the mill, no more and often less capable than any other member of the parliament in any party. That need not be an unassailable position but it has become one.
Had Scottish labour been capable of responding to change it would have sensed the rising strength of Scottishness, of a Scotland centred interest and would have led an equally Scottish focused march forwards but with a different destination. But, like the other unionist parties, they had bought into Alex Salmond’s most successful sleight of hand – that Scottishness and a focus on Scotland’s interests are the sole purview of the SNP. Monoliths indeed.
Harris’s other identification of moribundity in Scottish labour lies in his scorn for its failure to hold a hustings for MSPs, as the Labour party at Westminster did in the contest that saw Ed Miliband take the leadership.
He has pointed out that, in the undemocratic electoral college system adopted by Scottish labour, each MSP’s vote in the contest is worth 200 times that of the vote of an ‘ordinary’ party member. Harris is right that it is bizarre not to give this ‘high value’ element of the electorate enough knowledge of the alternatives to make their mind up on evidence rather than prejudice.
This is where the protectionist parochialism comes in.
The Scottish Labour MSPs of the moment are remarkable, beyond Malcolm Chisholm, Jackie Baillie and Sarah Boyack, for their mediocrity. But they hang together in resisting incomers and, as an MP, Harris is seen as somehow piratical.
The performance of the Scottish Parliament as a whole would benefit enormously from the wholesale repatriation of Scottish MPs of all parties. The talent pool at Holyrood is embarrassingly – cripplingly – shallow.
With the Scottish Labour leadership, the picture of the candidates’ respective nominations is interesting and accounts for concerns about both parochialism and imperialism.
- Harris has not one single nomination from an MSP. He has 12 from MPs (including himself), the most known of whom are Douglas Alexander and Michael Joyce; and he has one from the long serving Labour MEP, David Martin. This picture at once demonstrates the Holyrood barricades at work and the Westminster will to interfere.
- Lamont has 20 nominations from MSPs (including her own), which encompass the three genuinely able performers named above; and 7 MPs, the most notable of whom is Cathy Jamieson, the former Justice Minister at Holyrood. This picture shows the Holyrood Labour establishment and its traditionalist bread and butter Westminster equivalents backing the familiar.
- Macintosh has 13 nominations from MSPs (including himself), none of whom are household names; almost as many MPs, with 12, numbering Alastair Darling and Jim Murphy amongst them; and one experienced MSP, Catherine Stihler. This is the profile of the meritocratic ‘new boy’ – although Macintosh has been Glasgow Eastwood members since 1999.
Lamont also has heavy backing from the trade unions which, with the number and nature of her MSP nominations, makes her an almost certain winner.
Of the three, however, she is the one most likely to be no more than a caretaker. She is a capable party operative but no thinker, no leader and not someone who will excite the country.
Macintosh is a thinker but not a leader – and by leader we mean not just someone capable of leading the parliamentary party, which he might be, but of galvanising the wider electorate which the party must do.
Harris, who is destined to be the bottom-scraper in the votes, is the one most likely to do just that.
Most parties seem to forget that when they are electing a leader they are also electing the most likely winner, the one most capable of convincing non-party members to vote for the party.
There is something willfully self-destructive about this campaign, as if Scottish Labour is stubbornly determined to demonstrate that it will not change, believing that there is merit in that stance. There is, of course, historically speaking. What stays still, remaining in place, is at least there, aeons later, for archaeologists to discover – with all of irony of Shelley’s Ozymandias, where a traveller finds a broken statue in a featureless desert carrying the epitaph: ‘Look on my works, ye mighty and despair’.