October 27, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith
I would imagine you might be confused as to why the UK press are spending time reporting on what might at other times be just a minor local political party spat. But the resignation of Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont is significant for many reasons, both for Scottish politics but also for the UK too. It has highlighted an issue that could make next year’s General election even more unpredictable, and, unless carefully addressed by the Labour Party as a whole, could result in such a resounding victory for the Scottish Nationalist Party in the 2016 Scottish Assembly election that a new independence referendum could be on the cards much earlier than many expected.
Lamont’s resignation, delivered in a letter to Labour leader Ed Miliband on Friday, and which took place with immediate effect, was the result of feeling increasingly marginalized by the party’s central office. She said that the UK party treated Scotland like a “branch office” and that senior members of the party had “questioned” her place and she was taking herself “out of the equation” so it could decide the best way forward. She was also known to be angry about the removal of her general secretary, Ian Price, without her consent, or even any consultation.
The Scottish Labour Party is in charge of the Scottish MSPs at the Scottish Assembly in Holyrood and the MPs that represent Scottish constituencies in the House of Commons. That means that effectively, Lamont was in charge of the likes of Gordon Brown, Jim Murphy and Douglas Alexander as well as the 38 other Labour Westminter MPs on whom their hopes of a majority at the 2015 general election lie.
But two political problems had arisen north of the border that Lamont felt were not being recognized by Labour’s central office in London. Firstly, that Labour’s support for a “No” vote in the referendum meant that they were seen as being “in bed with the Tories”, which is poison at the moment in that part of the UK. So, Lamont wanted to be able to have some political positioning that de-coupled them from their temporary ‘bed-partners’. It didn’t help that in the aftermath of the referendum Ed Miliband backed away more than most from offering Scotland the devolution they had been promised – in particular by arguing that they couldn’t have full tax powers.
Secondly, and more importantly, Scottish Labour faced something that the UK Labour Party doesn’t have – a genuine left-wing alternative party. The Scottish Nationalists now have the third highest membership of any political party in the UK. In polls for the Westminster election in Scotland they have 43% of the vote. They have proven themselves to be competent administrators in Holyrood, and have parked their policy positions on what would have normally been Labour’s lawn in terms of tax, spending and social justice whilst extending that to ideas like removing Trident and of course being able to push for Scottish Independence themselves. This meant that Lamont believed Scottish Labour needed to challenge this by, for instance, coming out heavily against the “bedroom tax”, which is hated north of the border. But she was allegdely told for a year to not talk too much about it whilst Ed Miliband ‘decided what his position was’. This meant that Lamont was attacked for being vague on the issue. When you have a genuine and powerful left-wing alternative in a political culture like Scotland, where the population’s centre of gravity is far more to the left than the rest of the UK, you have to move a lot quicker than the Scottish Labour party to provide an alternative to the Coalition than the SNP did. But they, and Lamont, were not allowed to do that.
Worse, the problem that most political observers thought the SNP would have, finding an successor to Alex Salmond, turned up to not really exist due to the emergence of Nicola Sturgeon as the consensus choice as his replacement. Without concerted Scottish Labour action, it is quite possible that the SNP could win many more seats at the 2015 General election – causing Labour possibly to lose the whole thing – but also to extend their majority at Holyrood, which, as I have said, could cause independence to come back onto the agenda as well as ensuring that ‘devo-max’ is pushed for.
Scottish Labour are now left looking for a new leader. Someone who has the gravitas and credibility to take on the increasinly powerful SNP. Anas Sarwar, Lamont’s deputy, is being put forward, as are Labour MSPs such as Kezia Dugdale and Neil Findlay, but others have thrown names like Jim Murphy, Douglas Alexander and even Gordon Brown into the ring. It is a sign of how seriously they take the threat of the SNP, but also a sign of Lamont being right, that Westminster wants to continue to dominate the direction of the Scottish Labour Party, given that Murphy, Alexander and Brown have no connections to the Scottish Assembly. With further devolution that institution will have more and more power, and Westminster MPs for Scottish constituencies less, so Labour has to do a lot of thinking on this.
What is the result overall for British politics? I will talk more on this issue – but it is becoming increasingly possible that neither Labour nor Conservatives will be able to join with the Lib Dems to make a coalition in 2015, and that parties like the SNP and, yes, UKIP, could hold the balance of power in May.
Every single thing that happens at the moment in politics has real significance.