Ian Swanson: New names in top jobs give sense of direction

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LABOUR still has a long way to go before it can expect to be voted back into power in Scotland – but Johann Lamont’s shake-up of her shadow cabinet allows people to begin to see what an alternative government might look like.

The dramatic reshuffle, unveiled the day after Holyrood stopped for the summer recess, promotes several MSPs who first entered the Scottish Parliament at the 2011 election and brings former leader Iain Gray back to the frontbench.

In marked contrast to some previous Labour line-ups which leant heavily to the west of Scotland, the three top jobs are now held by Lothian MSPs – Mr Gray as finance spokesman, Kezia Dugdale at education and Neil Findlay at health. Sarah Boyack retains the local government brief.

As well as Ms Dugdale and Mr Findlay, those from the 2011 intake now taking up key roles are former senior policeman Graeme Pearson as justice spokesman, Drew Smith who will speak on the constitution, and Jenny Marra, who takes over the youth employment remit and will also 
deputise for Mr Gray at finance.

One MSP hails the appointments as showing “real boldness and sense of direction” and sees them as pointing the way beyond next year’s independence referendum to the 2016 Holyrood contest. “This is Johann saying these are the people she wants to take Labour into the next election and she is putting them in place now so they get to know their briefs.”

Labour’s defeat at the 2011 elections was massive – the party won just 15 constituency MSPs, compared with 53 in 1999, and relied on the top-up list to bring it up to its total of 37 against the SNP’s 69. Some of the most familiar faces – former ministers and many who assumed their seats were safe – found themselves unceremoniously dumped by the electorate, leaving Labour with big holes in its Holyrood team.

Ironically, some of those now chosen to help lead the party’s charge into the 2016 elections were never expected to become MSPs at all because if Labour had not collapsed in such spectacular style their places on the list would not have allowed them to get to Holyrood.

However, Ms Lamont has now put her faith in the new generation of rising stars and hopes that by 2016, Labour’s new faces will prove more attractive than the SNP’s frontbench.

One insider says: “They have proved themselves to be impressive and effective politicians and talented in lots of different areas. Johann deserves credit for making these appointments based on ability and putting good people in all the 
important positions.”

Former finance spokesman Ken Macintosh, who stood against Ms Lamont for the leadership when Mr Gray stood down after the 2011 defeat, is now out of the shadow cabinet. He issued a statement saying he was disappointed not to have the opportunity to finish the work he and his team had been doing and referring to “disagreements on the direction the party is headed” but promising to be “a constructive and loyal backbencher”.

It is said one of those disagreements was his lack of enthusiasm for more tax-raising powers for Holyrood. Another senior MSP says: “If he has doubts about devolving more tax powers, it’s difficult to see how he could carry on in that role.”

Differences on such a crucial issue at the top of the party are not helpful and may reflect one of Labour’s continuing problems – a lack of clarity on further devolution. But in the reshuffle, Ms Lamont has signalled her seriousness about renewing the party ready for power.