Endless sequels in Scottish Labour’s Jurassic Park

Sunday National, 6th September 2020.

“Grandee.” (Noun). Definition: political has-been, grousing once-was, allegedly influential former politician.

Tory, Labour or SNP: it is an iron rule of political reporting that just as all QCs are “top”, the media style guide provides that political grandees should be designated as “senior” or “respected formers.” Quite who decides these elderly political specimens are “senior” or “respected” isn’t entirely obvious. Your party grandee is often my opinionated crank in carpet-slippers – but whatever your political hue, whether it is Michael Heseltine or Jim Sillars, David Blunkett or David Steel – the bloviations of the ennobled, the ancient and the embittered are a reliable source of a gotcha headline.

It was Richard Leonard’s turn this week. Lord George Foulkes, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale and Baroness Liddell of Coatdyke joined four of their elected colleagues in Holyrood, decreeing that Scottish Labour “urgently” needs a new leader. The Tories’ tidy liquidation of Jackson Carlaw has given their colleagues ideas, and threats to Leonard’s leadership have been simmering under through much of the late summer. This being Scottish Labour, however, they mucked it up.

Leonard remains in place – for the moment at least – and the party numbers seem stacked in his favour. He’s wounded, but walking. For his supporters, the heave against him smells counter-revolutionary, reflecting long-standing party factionalism rather than an urgent political analysis of the challenges faced by Scottish Labour in 2021. Leonard branded is “sabotage”, just months out from the election. “The same people who are demanding Richard Leonard resigns are the ones who told us that Better Together was a huge success story for Labour and that Jim Murphy was the salvation of the Party – they have been repeatedly wrong and are wrong again – it’s treachery with a snarl,” Neil Findlay said this week.

And how grand these snarling grandees are. We have a former Mi6 intelligence officer, Robert Maxwell’s loyal bag-carrier turned grand High Commissioner to Australia, a Knight of the Thistle whose democratic socialism led him first to NATO, then to trailing after the Queen around central Edinburgh dressed in medieval costume and a pretty ostrich bonnet, and Lord George Foulkes – a cartoonish buffoon who seems to have taken that great Australian Sir Les Patterson as a model of clean living. These are your political emissaries?

I suppose we ought to be impressed by the formidable array of state approval dripping from these second-tier 1990s Scottish Labour politicians – but their intervention was like opening a coffin lid. Under Leonard, Scottish Labour may not be in the best of health – it’s true. The polling’s bad. He’s earnest but anonymous. Politically animated by reserved matters, he has routinely flunked questions on the devolved. I’ve seen better talkers and stronger debaters – though not very many of them huddled towards the back of his party’s Holyrood benches. But the idea the grands seigneurs of Scottish Labour’s ancien régime are his most effective internal critics shows you just how out of whack their political judgements has become.

You don’t need much political sympathy with Leonard to balk at this bevy of Blairite barons emerging from their crypts to dish out political advice. At least James Kelly, Jenny Marra, Mark Griffin and Daniel Johnson had the good grace to get elected first. But not to be outdone, more ghosts from the past gathered their ectoplasm and set about him later in the week, with former party henchpersons Blair McDougall and John McTernan joining in to criticise Leonard’s “weak, beleaguered and unconvincing leadership.”

These are fair points, as far as they go – but the whole episode has a deep air of unreality to it. Fixating on leadership is a jolly kind of escapism. If Leonard is run from office, Labour will be looking for its tenth leader in Holyrood in twenty years. I’m not sure, comrades, but this might suggest that the party’s faltering fortunes can’t entirely be laid at the door of its shifting cast of frontmen and women, or its latest incarnation. Palpably missing from any of these critiques is any alternative Labour leadership which would not struggle with – never mind overcome – the political forces Leonard is exhausting himself against.

In his resignation letter this week, MSP James Kelly defined 14% as an “unacceptably low level of support” for the party. If you were feeling ungenerous, you might wonder what an acceptably low level of Labour support might look like. Kelly maintains that Leonard’s failure to cut through with the public risks generating “a catastrophic result from which the party would struggle to recover.”

But aren’t we forgetting something? Hasn’t his party haven’t spent the last thirteen years in a long, post-viral malaise having been papped out of power? Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – elements of Scottish Labour still seem in the early stages of their cycle of grief for a political world lost when George Robertson and Helen Liddell were household names rather than ornaments of the Upper House.

All this must make more sense in the misty chambers of the House of Lords dining room, but out here in the world, the Blairite revenants talk about politics like a cargo cult. You can understand Findlay’s scorn. For political svengalis who think of themselves as hard-headed, worldly, pragmatic, and allergic to failure – this merry band have accumulated a dragon’s hoard of losses. You’d think, at least, these chaps might have learned to clothe themselves in a little modesty when it comes to their relationship with the electorate. But not a bit of it.

In 2010, Blair McDougall helped run running favourite David Miliband’s Labour leadership campaign into the ground. The cynical but effective voter segmentation and short-termism of his Better Together campaign won the No campaign its majority in 2014 – but left his union less integrated in the process, helping to knock through a number of its remaining pillars – including the Scottish Labour Party. It was Ian Murray, representing for the People’s Republic of Morningside, who said “the Labour Party in 2014 destroyed itself by campaigning for Scotland to stay in the UK because it was the right thing to do and I’m sure the Scottish Labour Party would do the same again.”

A quick résumé of Mr McTernan’s political successes include his 2007 stint running Scottish Labour’s Holyrood campaign – the first election the party would lose in the history of devolution. From 2011 to 2013, he crossed the Pacific to work as director of communications for Julia Gillard, then the Labor Prime Minister of Australia – who was tipped out of office by a leadership spill in her own party. Labor went on the lose the general election to Tony Abbott, who has made a return to British headlines this week, as the reactionary former leader of a foreign power this fiercely patriotic Tory government has decided should help Britain take back control of its trade relations. In December 2014, “proven winner” Jim Murphy appointed him chief of staff. Murphy, memorably, claimed his party would not lose a single Westminster seat in the 2015 General Election before losing forty.

As some of Leonard’s critics explicitly recognise, the recent ructions in the Labour Party have less to do with the fate of the People’s Party, and much more to do with the constitutional future of our corner of the United Kingdom. It was John Curtice who first flagged up the implications of Scottish Labour’s weakness for the union earlier this month. The “strategic difficulty that faces the leader of the Scottish Conservative party and faces Boris Johnson,” the professor observed, “is that they badly need the Scottish Labour party to revive between now and next May.”

“I didn’t leave the Labour Party, the Labour Party left me” is now a hoary old cliché of west of Scotland politics. For Scottish Labour, there’s clearly blame enough to go around. Whoever you set at the helm, whoever navigates the party into the 2021 election – there is no obvious course out of the doldrums tides on which Scottish Labour now listlessly floats. The folk who always disliked Corbyn are happy enough to blame him for their problems. His remaining allies lay the blame earlier in the party’s quest for power across the UK. To put it in terms of another 1990s classic, it’s like Jurassic Park, watching dinosaurs chewing lumps out of one another, as the rest of the world moves quietly on to the pangolin enclosure.

The question is always “what kind of political nostalgia do you prefer”? Do you want a turn around a thriving mining village in the Hovis van of Richard Leonard’s imagination, or revert to the Britpop Blairism and late 1990s haircuts of his critics? Do you want to spend your days re-litigating the successes and failures of Corbyn’s leadership, or of Blair and Brown’s? Listening in to Scottish Labour’s internal politics is like being trapped in an interminable family row. Who can blame voters for making their excuses, and leaving them to it?

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