Civil war rages in Labour party after Scottish leader walks out

Ed Miliband

The Labour party erupted into open civil war as Ed Miliband loyalists and supporters of Johann Lamont, the Scottish Labour leader who resigned this weekend, exchanged accusations and insults.

Following claims from Lamont that colleagues in Westminster had treated Scotland “like a branch office of London”, Miliband supporters revealed that she would have faced a coup if she had not stood down.

“Ed is relieved she’s gone,” said one Scottish Labour source. “The genuine reason why she has stood down was this: people knew we had a massive organisational problem in Scotland. It could not continue in the runup to the 2015 general election and the 2016 Scottish election. We had more than a dozen MPs and MSPs ready to be publicly named and calling for her to step down. Her position was untenable.”

Lamont announced she was resigning as leader in an interview published in the Daily Record on Saturday in which she claimed “colleagues need to realise that the focus of Scottish politics is now Holyrood, not Westminster”.

She added: “Just as the SNP must embrace that devolution is the settled will of the Scottish people, the Labour party must recognise that the Scottish party has to be autonomous and not just a branch office of a party based in London.

“Scotland has chosen to remain in partnership with our neighbours in the UK. But Scotland is distinct and colleagues must recognise that. There is a danger of Scottish politics being between two sets of dinosaurs ... the Nationalists, who can’t accept they were rejected by the people, and some colleagues at Westminster who think nothing has changed.”

Sources close to Lamont also claimed in the wake of the interview that Miliband had banned her for a year from promising to repeal the bedroom tax while he made his mind up on it.

The demand from London over the policy, which reduces benefits to council-house tenants if they have spare rooms, was said to be a huge frustration for Lamont, who was to come under heavy personal attack for being vague on the critical issue. A source close to Lamont said: “They told her not to condemn it for a year while Ed made up his mind on it. She might have been able to tell him fuck off but she didn’t want Labour to look disunited in the runup to the referendum.”

The resigning Scottish Labour leader was also unhappy that the general secretary of Scottish Labour, Ian Price, was sacked without her being consulted.

Labour sources said Price was called to London for “a chat” with national party general secretary Iain McNicol earlier this month, where he was sacked on the grounds that he was working too closely with the Scottish leadership. “The first Johann knew of it was a call from London, saying: ‘We’ve got a problem. We’ve sacked your general secretary’”, said a senior figure in Scottish Labour.

It was further claimed by sources inside the Scottish Labour party that Miliband was personally affronted when he was asked by Lamont’s office to play a more low-key role in the final stages of the referendum campaign than he had hoped. “The thing that got to Ed Miliband personally was when he wanted to be front and centre at the end of the campaign but we had to say: ‘You’re not well-known here’,” the source said.

“Miliband didn’t want Gordon Brown to be the last image of the campaign – he wanted it to be him and was scraping around looking for a suitable event.”

A spokesman for Miliband denied that there had been any disagreement during the referendum and said it was right that Scottish people were at the “front and centre” of the campaign. He also said that Miliband had always been clear about his position on the bedroom tax, which the party was now promising to repeal.

However, the fallout around Lamont’s resignation will be very embarrassing for Miliband, and potentially extremely damaging for Labour in Scotland, where the party currently has 41 MPs.

On Saturday former Labour first minister Henry McLeish backed Lamont’s criticism of the Westminster party, claiming that it did not have a clue about “the realities of Scottish politics” and faced a problem of “historic, epic proportions” that could cost it the next general election.

McLeish said: “I think Johann is absolutely right to make the comments she has made. For a decade now the party has been in decline and the SNP has been in the ascendancy. There has been a failure to rise to the devolution challenge.

“Overall, though, there has been a suffocating atmosphere of control that Westminster has been trying to put on Scotland. That’s what led Johann, I think, finally to leave.

“Labour in Westminster, Labour in London, has not a clue about the realities of Scottish politics. Johann has been badly advised. The influences on Ed Miliband have not been helpful.

“Now what we’ve got is a situation after a decade that Labour is still in denial in the UK and ... if there’s any hiccup in the number of MPs we send to Westminster in 2015, this could be catastrophic for Ed Miliband’s effort to become prime minister.”

A spokesman for the Labour leader said that the process to elect a new Scottish leader would start in the next few days. It is understood that Miliband hopes to have the contest concluded within six weeks.

Michael Connarty, Labour MP for Linlithgow and East Falkirk, has backed former prime minister Gordon Brown to replace Lamont as “a towering figure” who was “speaking the language of the people of Scotland”. He told BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland programme: “We should be talking about Gordon and Gordon alone. I’ll be seeking him out, and so will other people.”

Brown did not comment on Connarty’s call, but issued a statement in which he said he was “sorry to hear” of the resignation of Lamont who, he said, “brought determination, compassion and a down-to-earth approach to the leadership”.

Lamont, the Glasgow Pollok MSP, has represented her constituency since 1999, taking over as leader in December 2011 after the party’s bruising defeat by the SNP in Scottish parliamentary elections that year.

Despite Scotland voting to reject independence in September referendum, her position had become precarious as some claimed Labour could suffer in Scotland at the general election, significantly in the greater Glasgow area, where voters in 12 Labour constituencies backed independence.

A source close to Lamont said this was a “fundamental misunderstanding of Scottish politics”. “Lots of people who vote for independence are Labour voters and will stay Labour voters. There is an element of panic here. They are so desperate to get Ed Miliband in Downing Street that they have lost their way.”


The former Labour leader threatened to rejoin frontline politics during the referendum campaign in response to Alex Salmond’s claims about the threat to the NHS in Scotland. But he described himself as “too old to be a comeback kid and too young to be an elder statesman” once the union had been secured.

A campaign manager for Ed Miliband’s brother David during the 2010 leadership contest, Murphy has been pushed aside by the Labour leader. He toured Scotland to support the union and is regarded as a “big hitter” in Scotland.

The 33-year-old MSP for the Lothian region represents the “younger generation” of MSPs at Holyrood. She caught the attention of the media during the referendum campaign and has the advantage of not being part of the Westminster party.

The current deputy leader of Scottish Labour has taken over as caretaker in the wake of Lamont’s resignation. He succeeded his father Mohammad Sarwar as the MP for Glasgow central in 2010. Daniel Boffey

Powered by article was written by Daniel Boffey, for The Observer on Sunday 26th October 2014 00.05 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010