Published on September 30th, 2011 |
by Seamus Macleod
We are anonymous… And we’re standing for the leadership of the Scottish Labour Party
Much to the glee of supporters of the Scottish National Party, Ed Miliband today failed to name the front runner for the leadership of the Scottish contingent of his party when asked to by a BBC interviewer. His discomfort when to name the three candidates hoping to win the leadership of Scottish Labour is palpable. Mr Miliband succeeded in naming Tom Harris and Johann Lamont but desperately described Ken Macintosh as “a third candidate who is putting himself forward.” It is reported that Mr Miliband subsequently telephoned Mr Macintosh to apologise and the momentarily anonymous aspirant has good naturedly stated: “I don’t think anyone should read anything into it – half the time I can’t even remember the names of my own kids. If anything, it shows that politicians are human.“
Mr Macintosh may forget the names of his children but it seems highly unlikely that any major figure in Labour’s Westminster presence would be unknown to Mr Miliband. This awkward attempt to avoid admission of ignorance is mildly reminiscent of Alan Johnson’s inability to tell Sky News presenter Dermot Murnaghan the rate of employers’ national insurance contributions at the beginning of the year. Blogging for the New Statesman, George Eaton has been quick to emphasise the significance of Mr Miliband’s apparent disinterest in those vying to become his Scottish counterpart. Eaton describes the incident as “symptomatic of Labour’s complacent attitude towards Scotland.” Certainly Labour south of the border have lavished the UK’s northern component with little attention in recent years. Their Scottish contingent’s retreat in the face of SNP turned to a rout earlier this year when Alex Salmond led his party to an historic victory in the Hollyrood elections. The current leadership contest was caused by Iain Gray – Scottish Labour’s lacklustre leader who almost lost his seat in the 2011 Hollyrood elections – relinquishing the helm after failing to steer his party out of the maelstrom of defeat.
One could argue that the comparison between Mr Miliband and Mr Johnson’s gaffes is an unfair one. Whilst Mr Johnson was Labour’s chief spokesman on the economy and was engaged in explicit attack upon the economic credibility of the Coalition, Mr Miliband has little responsibility for the affairs of his party’s Hollyrood branch. Indeed, he is not alone in ignoring Scotland’s devolved government. Gordon Brown did not return to his homeland’s parliament when it was formed. Danny Alexander and Michael Gove – two of the most prominent members of the Government – show no signs of quitting their offices of state south of the border in order to contribute to the parochial affairs of the Scottish Parliament. Who can blame them? Devolution in its current form in Scotland is rife with inadequacies. The West Lothian Question remains unanswered. Its two largest parties – Scottish Labour and the SNP – struggle to differentiate themselves to voters. Its most fundamental flaw is that it is a governing body that sets spending policy on a wide portfolio of issues but is not directly responsible for its own budget. The Scottish Parliament’s budget is determined by the Barnett Formula rather than by taxes levied by the Parliament itself. This dislocation between government and the governed is a blight on politics in Scotland.
However, taking a less holistic view, Mr Miliband and his party would do well to take on board the criticism that they face from the New Statesman and others on their attitude to Scotland’s voters. The continued successes of Mr Salmond and the SNP have consequences beyond who reigns in Hollyrood. Polls show that support for Scottish independence – for which a referendum has been promised within the next five years – is at its highest point in nearly three years. If Scotland were to leave the United Kingdom, Labour would instantly lose 42 of its 256 Westminster seats. In comparison the Conservatives would lose 1.
Historically, support for the SNP has not been directly reflective of support for independence but this trend may not continue with a Conservative led government at Westminster. Certainly a credible voice will be needed to speak for maintaining the union when the referendum comes. Here, at least, Mr Miliband is not alone in struggling to name that individual.