Wednesday, 31 December 2008

The Wave of Upcoming Elections

Another post for Barn, this time the July 2008 issue. It was written following the resignation of Wendy Alexander as Labour Leader at Holyrood, and David Marshall as the MP for Glasgow East. At the time of writing, it was still assumed that George Ryan would be the Labour candidate and that Margaret Curran might have sought to put her hat in the ring to replace Wendy Alexander. There was also speculation that John MacDougall would resign - he never got the chance - and Jack McConnell was, at that point, still on his way to Malawi. Of course, none of it happened that way: Ryan pulled out, the Leadership campaign was put on hold for the duration of the Glasgow East By-Election, Curran ended up the candidate in that, Bill Butler went for the Deputy Leadership, MacDougall sadly passed away and McConnell was offered another post that wouldn't necessarily require his resignation as an MSP. But at the time, this was the situation Labour faced. It wasn't overly pleasant.

Scottish Labour now face a number of difficult elections which have come their way. The first is an internal matter: the row over the donations to Wendy Alexander's leadership campaign finally came to a head last month, as the Scottish Parliament's Standards Committee ruled by five votes to two that Alexander had broken Parliamentary rules by not declaring the donations on her Register of Interests, though she insists that Parliamentary Clerks had advised her that she didn't need to (but she only thought to ask about this after the deadline for declaring them had passed). The Committee then voted by four to three to recommend suspending her from the Chamber for one day. This was enough to finally push Alexander into resigning as Labour's Leader in the Scottish Parliament, and Cathy Jamieson, the Deputy Leader, is now in charge temporarily.

However, discussions about her successor have now begun. The bookmakers have installed Andy Kerr as the favourite: Kerr was a key ally of former First Minister Jack McConnell, and is a former Finance Minister and Health Minister. However, he was sidelined under Wendy Alexander, who gave him a very vague Shadow Cabinet portfolio ('Shadow Public Services Secretary'), and he made a number of unpopular decisions as Health Minister, such as closing local A&E Units in Ayr and Lanarkshire.

Cathy Jamieson, now the Acting Leader and former Justice Minister, is considering taking up the post on a more permanent basis. She has shown herself to be competent, and her parliamentary performance is quieter but more effective than Wendy Alexander's was. She will no doubt be everyone's second choice to be Leader, but is not thought to have enough support among key Party members.

Iain Gray, the Party's Finance Spokesman, lost his seat in the 2003 Election but returned last year as the MSP for East Lothian, making him the only credible candidate not to be from West Central Scotland. Between his defeat and his return, he was an adviser to Alistair Darling, so he is the preferred candidate for Labour's Westminster MPs, but if he wins, the SNP will accuse Labour of being run by London. If he stands and loses, the Conservatives will accuse Gordon Brown of having lost control of Scottish Labour.

The fourth credible candidate is Margaret Curran, current Health Spokesperson and former Chief Whip. She's an effective but abrasive performer, and made a number of enemies when she was caught briefing against Wendy Alexander in January. There may also be a challenge from the Party's left wing by Bill Butler, who will represent the Campaign for Socialism group, but may not get enough nominations.

However, this will be a divisive campaign: tensions have been evident ever since Jack McConnell emerged unopposed as Labour's Leader in 2001 (Wendy Alexander was going to challenge him then but backed out at the last minute) and they will finally come to a head. Meanwhile, it's thought that the donations affair wouldn't have been made public unless a high-ranking Labour politician leaked the information to the press, so accusations of disloyalty will abound: Kerr and Curran will be particularly vulnerable to these.

It's under these circumstances that Scottish Labour now have to fight a By-Election in Glasgow East, where David Marshall has resigned from Westminster due to ill health. The SNP require a 22% swing to win here, but following on from poor Labour performances in England, and in the poisonous atmosphere of a Labour Leadership contest, the local SNP are optimistic, and recall the Glasgow Govan By-Elections of 1973 and 1988, when they won the seat on even greater swings.

Meanwhile, there are continuing rumours that John MacDougall, the MP for Glenrothes, may also resign. His seat is a key SNP target, and the corresponding seat in the Scottish Parliament, Central Fife, was won by the SNP's Tricia Marwick last year. It also borders Gordon Brown's constituency, so for Labour to lose this would be seen as a personal humiliation for the Prime Minister.

Finally, with former First Minister Jack McConnell becoming the UK's High Commissioner to Malawi next January, MPs have called on him to resign as MSP for Motherwell and Wishaw. He has said that he won't serve as both High Commissioner and MSP at the same time, and that Malawi won't go without a UK High Commissioner at any point. If he is to keep that pledge, he has to resign by the end of the year, and that will also force a By-Election at a difficult time for Labour.

At a time when Labour are struggling across the UK, Scottish Labour faces an internal battle and a potential electoral war on three fronts. Who would want to be Gordon Brown right now?

Monday, 29 December 2008

Scottish Labour's Indecision on an Independence Referendum

This one appeared in the June 2008 edition of Barn magazine, after it had been translated into Welsh, of course. It was written in the wake of Wendy Alexander's infamous "Bring It On" moment.

A few weeks ago, Scottish politics looked clear. The SNP Government would try to hold a referendum on independence in 2010. They would table a Bill in the Scottish Parliament asking if the Scottish Government “should negotiate a settlement with the Government of the United Kingdom so that Scotland becomes and independent state.”

By 2010, there would probably be a Conservative Government in London: one that Scots hadn't voted for and didn't want, so Alex Salmond would have a good chance of winning the referendum. But it wouldn't come to that: the Bill would go before Parliament, but the three Unionist parties – Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats – would vote against it, and the SNP would go into the Scottish elections in 2011 accusing the Opposition of conspiring to deny the Scottish people a say on Scotland's future.

Then, on the 4th of May, a Scottish newspaper printed a report that Wendy Alexander, Leader of the Labour Group in the Scottish Parliament, and Gordon Brown were planning to put forward a Referendum Bill at Westminster, where it would pass, and a referendum would take place far sooner than Alex Salmond wanted. That day, Wendy Alexander was asked about the plan on BBC Scotland. She denied it, but the interviewer asked her if she opposed a referendum ever taking place. Her answer was relaxed, almost casual, but it shook Scottish politics up: “I don't fear the verdict of the Scottish people. Bring it on!”

Momentum gathered. On the 5th of May, it looked like Labour could support the SNP's Bill: they had announced that they would certainly not oppose it. That meant that even if Labour were to abstain, the Bill would still pass: the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats would only have 32 votes between them. The SNP on their own have 47 MSPs, and could rely on the Green Party. They would perhaps get the support of Margo MacDonald – the Independent MSP – as well. So the Bill would become law, and the vote would take place.

And Scottish Labour started feeling confident. They challenged the SNP to bring the Bill forward as soon as possible, and hold the vote sooner rather than later. The SNP responded that they would stick to their manifesto, and wait until 2010. Labour thought they had a chance to go on the attack and said that they would publish their own Referendum Bill. Wendy Alexander was interviewed again on the 6th of May: she was asked if she had spoken to Gordon Brown about her plan, and if he endorsed it. Her reply was clear: “Yes.”

That's when it went wrong. Firstly, the Conservatives at Westminster re-affirmed their Unionism, with David Cameron asking Gordon Brown about Wendy Alexander's support for a referendum. Brown replied that she hadn't given any support for a referendum. So what had Wendy Alexander spoken to him about? And what did Gordon Brown say he supported?

Worse was to come: parliamentary rules meant that Labour wouldn't be able to introduce a Referendum Bill. As a Member's Bill, it would have to have the support of 18 MSPs. That was easy: there are 46 Labour MSPs. But one of the 18 has to come from another Party that has at least five seats, and the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats both made it clear that they opposed the plan. Even so, they still wouldn't be able to propose the Bill if the Government planned to put forward their own Bill before the election. They do, of course, so Labour's plan failed.

By the 11th of May, Wendy Alexander went on television again. This time, she said that she would not stand in the way of a Referendum Bill: they were back to the position they had held six days earlier.

But on the 12th, a new line was agreed. That night, Malcolm Chisholm, who had very quickly been appointed Labour's “Constitutional Affairs Spokesman” went on television with his mantra: Labour would not “give the SNP a blank cheque”. This suggested that there were circumstances in which they could vote against a Bill, and the interviewer asked repeatedly if that was the case. All Chisholm said was, “We will not give the SNP a blank cheque,” over and over again.

In two weeks, Labour went from “no referendum ever” to “there could be one” to “there must be one right now”, then back to “there could be one” and finally to “there'll be one if we want one”. And the suspicion is that they won't want one. So after two weeks of rows, changes, and arguments with Gordon Brown, Scottish Labour's policy on an independence referendum looks to be exactly what it was in May 2007. And they lost that election, so Alex Salmond will be looking forward to 2011.

Sunday, 28 December 2008

A Year in the Life of the Scottish Parliament

This is the original, English draft of an article published in the May 2008 edition of Barn magazine. The aim was to "set the scene" for readers, introduce them to the players in the Scottish Parliament and summarise the twelve months following the May 2007 elections.

It's been almost a year since the last elections to the Scottish Parliament, which delivered a one-seat lead for the Scottish National Party over Labour, the election of Alex Salmond as Scotland's fourth First Minister, and the formation of the SNP minority Government. However, the fact that it did not have a majority, and the fact that, as critics said, the SNP had “never run anything bigger than Falkirk Council”meant that discussions in Scotland concerned the lack of stability that would be a factor in politics. It was felt that the Government could not last a full four years, that it would be only a matter of time before it fell.

One year later, no one asks questions about the stability or survival of the Scottish Government. Debate now focuses on whether or not the SNP will be able to implement its programme: even so, the SNP have generally done well. Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon's first move in the job was to abandon plans to close Accident & Emergency Units in Lanarkshire and Ayr. Proposals to end tolls on the Forth and Tay Road Bridges received almost universal support. Plans to freeze levels of Council Tax at their 2007 levels gained acclaim from all of Scotland's local Councils and the SNP's first Budget in office passed with support from the Conservatives and the Independent Member of the Scottish Parliament.

In fact, only one piece of legislation proposed by the Government has been rejected by Parliament: a piece of secondary legislation on temporary alternatives to prison sentences while Scotland's jails are overcrowded. And even that fell by accident: the measure had Liberal Democrat support, but four Liberal Democrat MSPs voted against it by mistake and two more missed the vote entirely! However, the opposition parties do frequently pass motions criticising the Government, but none of them are binding, and it's increasingly rare for the Scottish press to report on them now. While the SNP needs the support of at least one other party for its proposals, it usually gets it.

The Conservatives, meanwhile, have surprised everyone. As there was a majority Coalition until May 2007, and the Tories were not the main Opposition party, they were seen as irrelevant in Scottish politics. However, the party's 16 MSPs (and their votes) are now important: for example, without their support the SNP's Budget would not have cleared its first parliamentary hurdle. As a result, they've managed to gain major concessions from the Government, particularly on issues such as crime, policing and drugs policy. They are needed, and they know it.

Labour, however, has a difficult twelve months. It took three months for Jack McConnell to resign as Labour Leader, and the trigger was probably the offer by Gordon Brown to make him the next High Commissioner to Malawi, rather than the continual attacks on his Leadership from unnamed party sources. Wendy Alexander was returned unopposed as his successor. Nevertheless, she prepared to fight a Leadership campaign and began raising funds for it. Unfortunately for her, it was discovered that one of the donors lived on Jersey, and was not registered to vote in the UK, so his donation was illegal. In the event, the Electoral Commission decided not to prosecute either her or Charlie Gordon, the Labour MSP who arranged the donation, but the 'Wendygate' scandal dominated the first months of Alexander's leadership.

But that hasn't been the only problem: her performances in the Chamber have been weak, Labour Councillors have been working more constructively with the SNP Government than they did with the previous Labour/LibDem administration, and her initiatives to out-manoeuvre the SNP on constitutional issues keep getting hijacked by the UK Government, which is opposed to seeing the Scottish Parliament gain additional powers. And the most humiliating moment came when the party spent three months attacking the SNP's Budget proposals, only for the party's MSPs to abstain on the vote to pass them into law.

The Liberal Democrats started badly as well: until recently, the party continued to vote with the Labour group and people thought the coalition between the two parties was still ongoing. However, the Party's Leader, Nicol Stephen, looks more secure than he did last Summer, and he is beginning to get used to occasions like First Minister's Questions. The party has also begun to distance itself from Labour and re-establish its own identity.

And so, as we approach the first anniversary of the formation of the SNP Government, it's SNP activists who are the most satisfied. It's little wonder that the most obvious feeling at the Nationalists' recent Conference was contentment.