Ian Swanson: Holyrood humiliations haunt Labour

Johann Lamont hit out at Ed Miliband's leadership. Picture: Getty
Johann Lamont hit out at Ed Miliband's leadership. Picture: Getty
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ONE senior Labour politician summed up the state of the party in simple terms: “It’s a total shambles.” And that was before Johann Lamont resigned with a volley of criticism against colleagues at Westminster.

It was bad enough for Labour that many of its heartlands deserted the party by voting for independence, that the SNP seems to be on a roll despite the referendum result and that Labour has been left looking the most reluctant of all the parties on the question of more powers for the Scottish Parliament.

But on top of these woes, it has now been plunged into a bitter civil war with just six months to go to the general election.

However justified Ms Lamont’s criticism of the UK party and its attitudes towards Scotland may be – and she was quickly backed up by other people who should know, former first ministers Henry McLeish and Jack McConnell – it is not going to improve Labour’s chances heading into a crucial campaign.

The number of seats it secures in Scotland could be decisive in whether or not Labour gets into power at Westminster. And a bitter round of infighting is not going to win any votes.

Ms Lamont complains Ed Miliband’s team has treated Scotland like a “branch office” and sidelined her on crucial issues. But this is an issue Labour claimed it had addressed in the wake of its defeat in 2011, changing the rules so that when Ms Lamont took over from Iain Gray she was not just leader of the Labour group at Holyrood, but of the Scottish party itself. Clearly that change seems to have made little difference.

Ms Lamont’s close, long-standing friendship with shadow Scottish secretary Margaret Curran was also meant to ensure a transformation in the uneasy relations between Labour’s Holyrood and Westminster contingents, but that does not seem to have worked either.

The truth is that Labour has never really got over losing its position as the natural party of government in Scotland. When the SNP emerged from the 2007 Holyrood election with one seat more than Labour, it was easy to think of it as a fluke which would be corrected next time. The party’s good performance in Scotland in the 2010 Westminster elections gave it a false sense of confidence which was cruelly shattered in the Scottish Parliament elections a year later when the SNP won an unprecedented overall majority.

The scale of that humiliating defeat is most vividly seen in the fact Labour managed to win just 15 first-past-the-post seats in 2011 compared with 53 in 1999, and relied on the top-up list to bring it up to its total of 37 MSPs against the SNP’s 69.

Coming back from such a huge setback was always going to be difficult. Despite the No victory in the referendum, the Nationalists are the clear favourites to win again at the next Holyrood elections.

Labour looks in no shape to oust the SNP, but the tone of the current leadership contest will be crucial in whether or not it can begin a recovery.

Sarah Boyack’s surprise decision to enter the leadership race must improve the chances of getting back on an even keel. She is well respected inside and outside the party. Her experience as an MSP since the start of the parliament and as a minister will stand her in good stead.

It is too early to predict the result of the leadership contest, but Ms Boyack’s decision to bid for the job at least means it should not become a polarised and divisive right-versus-left battle.