Johann Lamont’s resignation has taken most people by surprise. Though there were rumours aplenty, Lamont herself had only recently confirmed that she would not stand down, but would stay on to become First Minister. Now she has rather suddenly changed her mind. At least she is going out with a bang and not with a whimper. She has accused some of her colleagues at Westminster as acting like dinosaurs and accused the UK party leadership of treating Scotland as a “branch office”. Will the party take any notice of these criticisms? Though the immediate focus may be on who will replace her as leader, the party faces much more fundamental challenges. These have to do with what kind of party it wants to be and in particular what relationship it has with Westminster and the UK Labour party.
Branch office or an independent party?
This remains an unresolved issue for the party. In a formal sense this has been partly addressed in as much as Johann Lamont was elected as the leader of the whole party in Scotland and not just the party’s leader in Holyrood. However there does not appear to be any real policy making powers for Scottish Labour. The party remains in practice a branch office of the UK party. Scottish Labour seems to be more about delivering the UK party’s policies as opposed to developing its own policies.
If Labour is to survive as a major political force, let alone challenge for government at Holyrood, this needs to change. There are basically two options. The first and most radical is for Labour in Scotland to become a completely independent party with no formal link with the UK party. All policy decisions would be taken in Scotland. When it comes to UK elections the party stand on its own, but would normally support the UK Labour party when it came to votes. They might even form part of an overt coalition.
The second option and the easiest to introduce is to change the UK party into a federal party. The Scottish party would have sole responsibility for devolved matters, while the UK party would decide on UK wide issues. This is a rather messy option as the UK is not a federal country and isn’t likely to become one anytime soon. So there would be some difficulties with this option. There would also remain plenty of scope for tensions between the UK party and the Scottish party.
Becoming a genuinely independent party is the option that would resonate most with voters in Scotland. The charge of London Labour is hard for the party to shrug off. As an independent party, Labour could rediscover its own roots and mount a positive challenge to the SNP as the more left of centre party. The federal option still leaves the current tensions between Westminster and Holyrood alive and kicking. The likelihood is that the party will do nothing more than a bit of window dressing. Things may change considerably after the 2015 UK election. If as expected, Labour loses a significant number of its MPs, then the Holyrood contingent would suddenly become much more important.
Holyrood or Westminster?
This is the mirror image of the previous issue. There has always been a suspicion that for Labour, the Scottish Parliament is very much second best to Westminster. Jibes that Labour at Holyrood is the B or even the C team bore more than a little relation to the truth. Johann Lamont seems to recognise this and has stated that her colleagues need to realise that the focus of Scottish politics is now Holyrood, not Westminster. This will not be an easy task as not everyone in the party agrees with this view.
Take Peter Russell for example who has recently written a very strange article for Labour List, which you can read in full here. Peter Russell seems to be articulating here the authentic voice of UK Labour – only a Labour government at Westminster can save Scotland. The following two extracts give a flavour of his view of what Labour should do. “First, let’s give some leadership: Scottish Labour has to take the political process by the lapels and show it who’s boss – as in who won the referendum, and who is going to dictate to whom in the coming weeks and months.” “Secondly, Scottish Labour must upscale the appeal of our unique selling point: that we are a party of UK government.”
The difficulty for Labour is that as long as Scotland remains part of the UK, the focus needs to be on both Holyrood and Westminster. The focus has to be on both, but in balance. Alas for Labour, the party seems to be unwilling or unable to do this. But unless it does so and develops a clear strategy that involves both Westminster and Holyrood, then the party faces a very difficult future. Electing the right leader will be an important part of this, but even more important is resolving the structural imbalances in the party.