Scottish Labour faces a clear but painful choice
Johann Lamont, Labour’s benighted leader north of the border, has resigned. Despite some effort to try to wrest some control of the local party from the national headquarters – she was the first Scottish Labour leader to be nominally in charge of the party’s Westminster MPs, although “nominally” is very much the operative word there – Ms Lamont has used her resignation to attack “London Labour’s tendency to treat the Scottish party like a branch office”.
There doesn’t seem to be any doubt that Labour didn’t quite embrace devolution with the enthusiasm that its legislating for it might have suggested. Most of the front-rank talent stayed at Westminster, and the party fiercely resisted giving the local wing any organisational room for manoeuvre.
What’s most strange about that unwillingness to let go is that it never seems to have extended to policy. While Tony Blair was driving forward the ambitious agenda of New Labour’s early years, the control-freak instincts of his party suffered a tragic lapse and both Scotland and Wales were allowed to quietly opt out of reform altogether. As Alex Massie puts it:
“There was a constituency for New Labour in Scotland; it’s just that, on domestic policy, we never got New Labour at Holyrood. Even when they were in power Scottish Labour saw all these dangerous things – ideas, you know – happening in England and said we’ll no be having any of that new-fangled nonsense up here.”
Whilst this attitude might have sufficed, at least for the unimaginative and unambitious, during times of strength it has proven a house built on sand in today’s more trying conditions. The party lost office in 2007, was humiliated in 2011 and looks set to be beaten again in 2016. The SNP has used the referendum campaign to borrow its best tunes and is making an aggressive pitch for Labour’s private fiefdoms. Glasgow, its political citadel, voted to secede from the country altogether.
Not that the ramifications are confined to Scottish politics, of course. If the SNP make strong gains at Labour’s expense in 2015 it will directly undermine Miliband’s attempts to cobble together a majority inside his comfort zone. Worse, as UKIP has shown in Heywood and Middleton, if an insurgent party starts making Labour’s heartland competitive it will have to divert scarce funds and campaign resources away from the critical marginals that will decide the election.
Who will step up to avert this terrible fate? The pickings are rather thin. Despite being subject to much speculation after his barnstorming referendum speech, Gordon Brown has ruled himself out. So have MSPs like Anas Sarwar, Kezia Dugdale, Jenny Marra and Jackie Baillie, perhaps sharing Fraser Nelson’s analysis that the next leader will be little more than a scapegoat for Labour’s worst Scottish electoral setback in living memory.
This leaves a fairly narrow field. Sarah Boyack MSP has been the first to declare, but nobody seems excited by her candidacy. The real battle appears to be shaping up to be Jim Murphy, MP for East Renfrewshire, versus union-backed left-winger Neil Findlay MSP, who last week set out his vision for Scotland in the socialist Morning Star newspaper. Yes, really.
A caricaturist could not have more starkly illustrated the choice between hated but necessary modernisation and the comfortable failures of the past 15 years.
Scottish Labour faces some big strategic calls – more powers for Holyrood, internal devolution, whether to try to out-left the SNP or embrace public service reform – which could fundamentally reshape the political battleground. Unlike perhaps any Scottish leader since Donald Dewar, the winner of this contest has the potential to recast Scottish politics.
Northern Ireland Executive unveils hundreds of millions in spending cuts
In the face of yet another deadline from the Treasury, the Northern Ireland Finance Minister Simon Hamilton has unveiled £872m of public spending cuts.
Some departments are facing budget reductions of up to 13 per cent in order to protect the departments of enterprise and health. Education is not currently protected, but under Northern Ireland’s power-sharing system that ministry is held by Sinn Fein who show no sign of being prepared to accept Hamilton’s proposed cuts.
If the draft budget is not agreed by Friday then the province misses out on a £100m loan from the Treasury. This is the latest in a series of penalties Stormont has incurred due to Sinn Fein’s blocking of the Coalition’s welfare reform policies. A party spokesman has blamed the Executive’s financial crisis on a Tory “ideologically driven assault on the welfare state”.
For the moment, the salaries and office expenses of Northern Irish MLAs have not been affected by budget reductions.
Fire Brigades Union calls off Welsh strike and accuses Coalition of seeking one
The Fire Brigades Union has suspended the Welsh portion of a planned national strike over retirement plans.
The four-day walkout is due to begin on Friday evening. At the heart of the dispute are planned reforms to pensions, including increased in-payments and a rise in the retirement age from 55 to 60. The Welsh action has been suspended, however, following an accommodation between the FBU and the Cardiff Bay administration.
Although keen to emphasise that the suspension is only temporary and is being kept under review, the union has nonetheless used the apparent breakthrough to attack the Government for not appearing to want to resolve the dispute and prevent an “avoidable” strike.