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?

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