Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

From accident to action

Jack McConnell needs to develop a new style of political leadership in Scotland, argues Chris Warhurst

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With the Parliament firmly established, Scottish Labour’s performance and ambition as coalition leader of the Scottish Executive can be assessed. To best position itself for a second term, the party has still to articulate the purpose of the Parliament and its leadership of it.

As the first First Minister in 1999, Donald Dewar provided excellent service. He was a steady hand on the tiller, steering through the necessary legislation, and became a safe pair of hands for Tony Blair post-devolution. Dewar’s successor, Henry McLeish, has been described as Scotland’s ‘Accidental First Minister’. He realised that with the Parliament up and running, the country now needed leadership, not service. Unfortunately, even during his own personal crisis over trivial office finances, Henry couldn’t get a grip, and was quickly succeeded by his younger party rival, Jack McConnell.

As new First Minister, Jack McConnell wants his Cabinet colleagues to do less but better. Such instruction is understandable. Perhaps in a rush to make a difference to Scotland or make a distinction between London and Holyrood, the Executive has suffered from ‘initiativitis’. For some ministers this is a result of their boundless but unchannelled energies and ideas. For others, it is borne of the hope that an initiative a day will keep an invasive media at bay. McConnell wants action on the issues that matter. Housing, education, transport and health will become key foci in the run-up to the next Scottish general election in 2003. Electoral reform, though important to Labour’s coalition partner, will be a distracting irritant.

In part McConnell is responding to outside pressures. First, opinion polls consistently indicate that Scots are disappointed with the Parliament and want more from it. For many it is nothing more than a big ‘toon cooncil’, another layer of government administration. They are tired of the continuing emphasis on constitutional issues. The SNP plays every problem as a challenge to the Scotland Act. Vessels laid up in harbour to ease the pressure on depleted fish stock, shortfalls in funding for elderly healthcare and even a Mike Tyson boxing match in Glasgow were constitutional crises, according to the SNP. By implication, the Executive and Labour too were lurching from crisis to crisis. The media loved it, but the public despaired.

Second, with ineffective parliamentary opposition, it is the media that holds Scottish Labour to account. Media-wise, Holyrood is a small pond with many (often frenzied) feeding fish. Whilst the ‘lost tribe’ of Scottish Labour MPs are starved of media attention, MSPs, particularly ministers, are often overwhelmed by it, as the debacle over the abolition of Section 28/Clause 2a and Henry’s dismal ‘Officegate’ demonstrated. However, battening down the protective Labour hatches is not a viable option.

The Labour-dominated Executive must be more proactive and stop its work being derailed, and too often driven, by the media. McConnell has to make a ‘critical friend’ of the media. The Executive must keep the media on side as an aide in persuading a sceptical public of its ideas and actions.

The political achievement of establishing the Parliament still casts a long shadow. As the public recognise, constitutional issues must be set aside. The key task for Scottish Labour is to develop a politics of renewal. After delivering the Parliament, Labour must make the Parliament deliver, but within a coherent framework. The party must demonstrate why the Parliament was needed and what Labour will do for Scotland through it. To do so, Labour must develop and communicate a grand narrative of, and for, Scotland. It cannot be a marketing strap line. It should be a positioning statement by which to steer and measure the process and outcomes of Labour ideas and action in Scotland.

To be successful it is dependent upon an articulate leadership. Normal service cannot be resumed. In the run-up to the 2003 election, Scottish Labour and Jack McConnell have to develop a political leadership of the kind not yet seen in the Parliament. It will strengthen the position of the new First Minister, assert the relevance of Labour in Scotland and give the Parliament a significance beyond the constitutional.

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Chris Warhurst

is co-editor of The New Scottish Politics and the forthcoming Tomorrow’s Scotland

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