THEY ARE TRYING voodoo again. The most successful political machine Scotland has seen in four decades is being "relaunched", like it or not. The faces will remain the same. The arguments will not alter. But, after a summer of scary opinion polls, the order has gone out: the party that stood fast against 18 years of Conservative Britain, winning every electoral contest offered hands down, must become "Scottish New Labour" forthwith.
So much for devolution. In the brave new world of constitutional reform, Labour in Scotland is to have Blairism in a kilt as a surrogate for all the real autonomy it lacks. Just as Margaret Thatcher understood her party's persistent hassles north of the border in terms of a wilful failure to embrace her personal "ism", so Labour has moved to bring its Scottish wing firmly into the fold. All, henceforth, will be New and Tony shall abide.
This is odd, when you stop to think about it. If politics is about winning elections, Scottish Labour has had few equals down the years. Whatever the catastrophes in the south, it never became unelectable. It had no need - desire being another matter - for Blairism. In fact, its habit of succeeding where English colleagues failed, time and again, was one of the facts of political life over 18 years that made the push for home rule seem so logical to so many. Scotland was different; the voters proved it. Why should it not run its own political affairs?
One good argument against, and one likely to survive any lame rebranding exercise, arises from the queasy feeling many Scots get when they imagine Labour translated from council wards and backwoods constituencies to the shiny new parliament in Edinburgh. When the word "sleaze" pops into the heads of those who have seen certain people run constituencies and councils like feudal holdings, the populace grows uneasy.
There is a paradox here, of course. Those who raged when allegations came out about Govan's Mohammed Sarwar, Renfrewshire's Tommy Graham or Glasgow's Lord Provost (Mayor) Pat Lally tend to be the very people who elected these gentlemen in the first place. Few are more contemptuous of the Labour machine in west central Scotland than people whose voting habits seem to be handed down like a genetic inheritance. They may be turning dispiritedly to the SNP now - hence Labour's misconceived relaunch - but they are the very citizens who have kept the local party barons in power for decades. As they say in these parts, the voters knew the score.
For a long time, too, a strange myopia afflicted even those with positions of responsibility who were not remotely tainted. The late John Smith, it was said, was both aghast and amazed at allegations of sectarianism and cronyism in Monklands council. Anyone who knew him even slightly could believe it: Smith was as straight as they come. The point is, however, that Monklands was slap in the middle of his own constituency and he was then the leader of the Labour Party. How do you deal with sleaze when its very existence eludes you?
The truth is, of course, that many did not want to know. In the parlance, the local machines "delivered", they "did the business", keeping Labour in virtually unchallenged municipal power and giving it a bloc of MPs impervious to Thatcherite challenges. There was no incentive to rock the boat. Lally was cleared of the hierarchy's inept charges over alleged junketing, but the fact that Glasgow City Council is and long has been a faction-ridden nest of intrigue was never a secret. Political life for many Glasgow councillors had more to do with doing down their comrades than beating the Tories - who, after all, counted for next to nothing in municipal affairs. Deprivation in the city, meanwhile, remained among the worst in Europe.
Equally, while the controversies over Messrs Sarwar and Graham may rumble on, there is little chance we will have seen the back of either man. In much of central Scotland, being a Labour MP is taken to mean having a job for life. It also often means the power of patronage and, given that Blair rarely stretches his backbenchers, the opportunity for idle hands getting into mischief.
Graham is said to be seeking judicial review of his recent expulsion and may well discover, as Lally did, that the law demands more in the way of proof than Labour does. Nevertheless, the allegations against the Renfrewshire West MP were lurid enough to give a ripe flavour of what we have come to know as sleaze.
Remember that job for life? The boundary review after the 1992 general election made many believe Graham's seat had become a marginal. It was then, according to his accusers, that he began to try to undermine neighbouring comrades. Bitterness, to say the least of it, ensued. First, a suicide note left by the Paisley South MP Gordon McMaster accused Graham of running a smear campaign against him. Later, as the inquiry heard, the ebullient Tommy was said to be "bad-mouthing" Irene Adams, MP for Paisley North. It gave a whole new meaning, the blacker wits said, to "solidarity".
Yet for years, indeed decades, few of these sorts of escapades had mattered much. Scandals came and went. Each time, particularly in places like Paisley, the party swore blind that it would get to the bottom of the mess. Each time a report was produced, it gathered dust. No longer. Even if it has taken Labour 14 months to achieve its inconclusions concerning Graham, the five internal charges against him were the last thing the party needed. For once, it had not only to act but to be seen to act. Too many previous investigations had been botched and the public was not in an indulgent mood.
Smears, campaigning against other MPs, offering compromising pictures of a gay trade unionist in exchange for information, "conduct" generally "detrimental" to Labour's interests: Graham denies it all but in a party obsessed with its image this is lethal stuff. It is particularly so when piled upon the growing mound of other scandals, from Gordon McMaster's suicide to the revelation that for years several Scottish councils seemed to have no real control over their direct labour organisations and no explanation for the huge debts they had accumulated. Next May, when the first 129 members of the Scottish parliament (MSPs, as they will be known; 73 from constituencies, 56 from regional party lists) take their seats, voters will have had a chance to offer their own opinions on the prevailing culture of Scottish Labour.
Tony Blair does not require Scotland's votes just yet, of course, but a second term might be harder to win than the first. If another landslide does not materialise, the four dozen or so MPs Scotland has for years shipped faithfully south might be very handy indeed. Equally, a damning verdict at the Scottish parliamentary elections from an electorate paying more attention to sleaze than to the niceties of constitutional reform might well be repeated in a general election. A defeat for New Labour so early in government would be a very bad omen indeed.
To be fair to the Labour leadership, it understands all this perfectly well. The selection of candidates for Edinburgh has been rigorous, with even a couple of sitting Westminster MPs being rejected (though that had nothing to do with their personal behaviour). Donald Dewar, the Scottish Secretary, has made it clear that old pros and McBuggins will not have their turn at Holyrood as of right. The new parliament means new politics, so we hear, and that means new politicians.
We shall see. Despite all its promises Labour has done little to dent quango culture north of the Border. It has discovered, to its cost, that law and natural justice are different from party rules when you want to dump a troublesome MP or Provost. Equally, the parliamentary selection procedure began to look - to some - like an attempt to kill two birds with one stone. Corruption, as everyone knew, was an old Labour problem. So, too, was socialism, at least according to the modernisers. Several of those who failed to survive the selection procedure have claimed the purge was as much political as ethical. Thus Dennis Canavan, a long-serving MP who happens to be left-wing, and who failed to be selected, is threatening to add to his party's list of legal challenges.
Predictably enough, the Nationalists have dined royally on the dish Labour has set before them. Never having had much power, they have little to explain away - though it is suggested that SNP councillors are no better, in office, than their Labour opponents. Nevertheless, every sleaze scandal has served only to polish the image of Alex Salmond's party as new, fresh and free from the bad old ways. Hence the fact that Scotland is the only part of Britain still bothering with real politics at the moment. The Tories are a wreck everywhere, it is true, but north of the border they have not a single MP, a single council, or a single Euro-MP. Meanwhile, the SNP is giving Labour more than a run for its money. Lately the polls have even suggested the Nationalists might inflict on Blair the one thing he has not experienced as party leader: a defeat.
And who would want to be the prime minister who lost Scotland? Who wants the page in the history books recording that Blair, Tony, presided over the break-up of Britain? How might it feel, sitting some day in a depleted House of Lords, to be known as the man whose ill-considered zeal for constitutional reform achieved the opposite of what was intended, encourag- ing the Scots to go their own way rather than binding them to an ever- closer Union?
Nine years from now, the deal struck by the Scottish nobility and their placemen will be three centuries old. Yet it is now possible to ask seriously, courtesy of Blair's Scottish party's taste for scandal, whether it will last until 2007.
Labour's triumph in last September's referendum has become Labour's waking nightmare in 1998, even if the most recent polls have shown some hopeful signs. The SNP has fallen back, according to both the Scotsman and Glasgow's Herald. But the Nationalists remain Scotland's second party by a long way, hard on Labour's heels, and Alex Salmond, their leader ("convener" in the parlance), remains determined to use the new parliament as a vehicle to carry Scotland out of the Union. The comical part is, he could not have got this far without Labour's inadvertent help.
Consider the situation. The new electoral system will benefit a Nationalist party whose support is spread widely but too thinly to achieve much under first-past-the-post. According to the latest Herald poll, the SNP would win only 14 Edinburgh seats on a constituency basis but 39 of the regional list seats. The newspaper's projection gave Labour 59 Edinburgh seats, the SNP 53, the Liberal Democrats 10, and the cultists of Conservatism seven. The Nationalist tide has not receded to anything like the extent Blair and Dewar would like. Next May's election remains, to all intents and purposes, too close to call.
Hence Labour's gamble. It has dealt firmly, to say the least, with Graham, hoping this will convince the voters it means business when dealing with sleaze and praying that the differences between New Labour and old is now obvious. But the MP is threatening to stay put in the Commons and, worse, use parliamentary privilege to broadcast his own side of the story until the Holyrood elections and beyond. If he also goes to law - with the Sarwar case still to be decided and some of Lally's colleagues also plotting legal action over suspensions which the party was forced to lift - the publicity could be murderous.
It is not really surprising, then, that Downing Street gets irritable with Labour in Scotland. On one side there are the old lags putting Tammany Hall to shame. On the other there are the Scottish media ("unreconstructed wankers" in one famous New Labour analysis), allegedly obsessed with the minutiae of home rule to the exclusion of all else. Neither has very much to do with the story the Prime Minister wants to tell and Donald Dewar has so far failed to stamp his authority on either awkward squad.
Small wonder. Ask around in Scottish Labour circles and you will still find many who cannot see what all the fuss is about sleaze. It's just a way of getting things done, they say. A favour for a favour, a vote for a vote. Sometimes you have to cut a few corners; what's the big deal? After all, who delivered the vote in all those councils and constituencies and who best understands local conditions and local needs? Besides, they say in the pubs, it's been going on for years, and never did Labour any harm.
Scotland is a country that likes consensus. The consensus, hitherto, has been in Labour's favour. Scotland has also been a deeply conservative place down the years, returning the same party to office time after time; taking it for granted, even among the middle classes, that the old proletarian platitudes offered up by the Jimmys and the Tommys still meant something. The misdemeanours of "the cooncil" or the misdeeds of an MP were accepted without much protest because there seemed little alternative. With the machine in Labour's control, who else would you turn to if you needed a new council house?
It couldn't go on. Far fewer Scots live in those council houses now, thanks to Thatcher. Devolution, paradoxically, has given the SNP its chance, while to many people New Labour neither acts nor sounds the way a Labour Party is supposed to. So comes the war on sleaze, even as the traditional bonds of loyalty are loosening. The purge may be both necessary and overdue. It might also be too late. When you talk of new politics you must be certain you are free of the old.
Labour may indeed have selected the brightest and the best candidates. But old habits die very hard in Scotland. Despite the efforts of decent Mr Dewar, the voters may yet conclude they are looking at the same old hacks in brand new suits, still cutting their deals and "doing the business". !