The crisis in the Scottish Labour party makes many waves. Most obviously and dramatically it could cost Labour the general election next year. How ironic it would be if Ed Miliband lost because of the outcome in Scotland rather than in England. Such a twist is possible as the SNP soars and Labour slumps in the traumatic aftermath of the referendum.
There are other waves even bigger than those that may determine the result of a single general election. The outgoing leader of the Scottish Labour Party, Johann Lamont, has made two highly charged allegations against Miliband and his office. She accuses Miliband’s team of treating the Scottish Labour Party as a branch office and of taking a year before allowing her to announce formal opposition to the bedroom tax. Both onslaughts seem deadly, not least in the context of that nerve-shredding referendum campaign where leaders from Westminster, including Miliband, were either peripheral or were inadvertent recruiting agents for independence.
But take a step back from the emotive circumstances of a leader’s resignation and the attack sheds more light on the UK’s fragile constitutional arrangements than it does on the conduct of Miliband and his office. Miliband was elected as leader of his party across the entire country, including Scotland. As well as having an obvious direct interest in urging Labour to raise its game in Scotland Miliband has a duty to actively seek improvements. He is the leader of the UK Labour Party.
If anything, the Labour leadership in Westminster has not shown enough interest in what has happened to its party in Scotland. Towards the end of the referendum campaign a senior shadow cabinet member from Westminster told me that for many years a clear instruction had come from their colleagues in Scotland: “Keep away!” The instruction was obeyed. The once mighty Labour Party in Scotland went into decline, and there was virtually no intervention from Westminster even though the collapse in support was bound to have an impact on Labour’s chances of ruling across the UK.
Westminster leaders are in a no-win situation. If they keep out of the way when there are problems with their party in a part of the UK where power is devolved they are accused of being neglectful. If they show an active interest, they are accused of interfering in areas that are none of their business. Miliband has been accused of both, sometimes simultaneously.
The stormy relations are the consequence of devolution that followed the 1997 election. The recent referendum in Scotland plays a big part in the specific crisis currently facing Labour, but it is only an element in a much wider saga. The clash between Westminster and party hierarchies in other parts of the UK could arise with any party and leader at any time. At the moment crises are more likely to erupt within Labour because it happens to be the party with more at stake in Scotland, Wales and London, the three areas where power was devolved – to varying degrees – after 1997.
Indeed, the current tensions between Miliband’s office and the Scottish Labour Party have some echoes with Tony Blair’s attempts to impose a candidate on the London Labour Party during the first London mayoral election in 2000. Blair blocked Ken Livingstone from being his party’s candidate, fearing wrongly that Livingstone’s candidacy would signal a return to the party’s vote-losing habits in the 1980s. Later Blair admitted he made a mistake. But as leader Blair had a right to intervene, and arguably a duty to do so, even if he misjudged what form his intervention should take. Yes, he had devolved power to a mayor of London, but he was still leader of the Labour Party and at no point had he made the London Labour Party autonomous.
If Miliband’s office was as lofty as to treat the Scottish Labour Party as a branch office it needs to tread more sensitively in the future. But he and his office had every right to intervene given the decline in support for Labour in Scotland. As for Lamont’s specific criticism, the bedroom tax was a policy passed in the UK Parliament. It was for Miliband to decide what Labour’s line should be. Lamont was not in a position to pre-empt him even if she was impatient for him to make a decision.
The calls from several senior Labour figures in Scotland for their party to become autonomous are illogical and dangerous. Voters in Scotland might not be thrilled, but the election in 2015 is for the parliament in Westminster. In 2016 they get their chance to elect a newly powerful parliament in Edinburgh.
For the election next year, the Labour Party must dance to the same tunes in England and Scotland. It cannot advance different positions in relation to the bedroom tax or, say, Europe, and then form a single government at Westminster with a single policy on such huge issues. If there are separate, autonomous parties we might as well have separate, independent countries.
Perhaps the current row with Labour is another step towards such a break-up. I have been to Scotland twice since the referendum and on both occasions bumped into No voters who regret their decision. They feel duped by David Cameron, who to some extent represents Westminster and all the parties that hope to rule from there. As Labour suffers in the fall-out, Miliband panics and urges Scottish Labour to get its act together. Meanwhile, Scottish Labour suggests that it is Miliband who is the problem. At a time when all the parties are pledging to give away more power from the centre, the UK struggles still with the messy consequences of earlier attempts at devolution.Reuse content