Labour’s breakdown in trust threatens general election ruin

Scottish Labour activists might well ask why it has all gone so wrong.

It was their party that led the no campaign in a historic referendum that retained the union while the Scottish National Party’s campaign for independence was defeated, sending the popular Alex Salmond into retirement.

Weeks later, the SNP’s membership soars and their new leader, Nicola Sturgeon, is predicted to win more seats in next year’s general election. Labour in Scotland is in disarray, without a leader or a general secretary, and sliding down the polls.

Talk of a Labour election disaster north of the border next year has not stopped party figures such as former first minister Jack McConnell blaming Ed Miliband’s leadership for forcing the current crisis. It feeds the SNP’s claims, supported by departing regional leader Johann Lamont, that Labour’s Scottish operation is little more than a colonial outpost.

The answer appears to be that there have been tensions between Lamont and Miliband’s Labour for years, and that it was only a matter of time before these spilled out into the public.

Elected in 2011, Lamont was promised an increase in powers from her predecessors, all of whom had technically been leader of the Labour group at Holyrood, not leader of Scottish Labour as a whole.

From the beginning, she was seen as “lightweight” by Labour’s London HQ, Labour sources confirmed. She lacked gravitas and communication skills, they claimed.

This mistrust led to two serious clashes before the sacking of her general secretary, Ian Price. Her authority was undermined during the Falkirk row last year over the selection procedure to replace Eric Joyce, the MP who stood down after being fined for drunken assaults in House of Commons bars. The investigation was politically difficult for Miliband because it involved claims that the union Unite, which had supported his leadership nomination, was abusing the process to support their candidate.

The Falkirk investigation was conducted from London before being dropped for a lack of evidence. Lamont’s office was ignored.

Her attempts to establish a commission to examine the extent to which powers could be devolved to Holyrood was frowned upon by Labour’s senior figures. The commission finally reported in March but Lamont faced criticism for providing muddled proposals on tax-raising powers. Her friends have insisted that she was leaned on by Labour’s London HQ to drop support for the devolution of income tax resulting in an incoherent plan.

Selection of a new leader exposes another problem: the figures seen as having the political nous to take on Sturgeon are, in the main, MPs: Jim Murphy, Douglas Alexander and Gordon Brown.

An MP can be elected – provided that individual then seeks to be Labour’s candidate for first minister at the Holyrood elections in 2016.

The alternatives are a new generation of MSPs: Anas Sarwar, Lamont’s deputy, and Kezia Dugdale.

With exquisite timing, Miliband’s appearance at the Scottish Labour gala dinner on Thursday will bring him face to face with Scottish party executive members tasked with clearing up the mess left by Lamont’s resignation.

Labour’s leader will be hoping it can be completed, and quickly. His ability to win next year’s general election may depend upon it.

Powered by article was written by Rajeev Syal, for The Guardian on Sunday 26th October 2014 23.07 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010