The king hereafter?

The choice of the next leader of the Scottish Labour party will be vital to Labour’s hopes of winning power not just in Scotland but across Britain as a whole.

Thinking merely tactically, there is the simple point that if the Scottish National party wins seats from Labour in the next general election, then Labour has to win even more seats from the Tories south of the border to get back into government.

More significantly, there is the chance that Scotland does seek independence, in which case the Labour party will face a very bleak electoral future indeed or, perhaps more likely, that some tacit agreement is reached between the Scottish Nationalists and the coalition to limit the role of Scottish MPs at Westminster as part of a ‘devo-max’ deal.

In other words, Labour is in danger of being trapped as the common target of two enemies, with both having an interest in limiting the contribution Labour’s Scottish MPs can make to our national life.

So a popular, healthy Scottish Labour party is absolutely essential to the future of English Labour. This is why it is a complete mystery to your insider that the Scottish leadership election has caused only total indifference among London Labour types.

Of the three candidates, most people in London Labour only know the one they assume cannot win – Tom Harris – and if you ask around Portcullis House and at Labour HQ on Victoria Street, the most common fact cited about the frontrunner is that the leader of the Labour party could not remember his name.

Indeed, I have heard more gossip in Westminster about minor kerfuffles in Ken Livingstone’s campaign staffing than I have about the choice between Ken Macintosh and Johann Lamont.

In this ignorance, the general expectation in London is that Macintosh will win, mostly because he is reported as ‘the frontrunner, Ken Macintosh’ in most news reports.

I am not so sure. Lamont has got more endorsements from MSPs, performed well at Scottish Labour’s conference, and has the support of the GMB, Unite and Unison. Plus, as the current deputy leader, and the only woman standing, she has profile advantages. If she does well in the November hustings, Lamont could yet ‘do an Ed’ and overcome the prohibitive favourite, who appears to be running something of a ‘safety first’ campaign. You heard it here first.

But whisper it: whoever wins, there is the chance that when the hurlyburly’s done all this could be the making of one candidate – not of one of the top trio but of a young thane from the west of Scotland with his mind on a higher prize.

Anas Sarwar, the young MP for Glasgow Central and Progress vice-chair, has the overwhelming lead for nominations for deputy leader and got rave reviews for his performance at Scottish Labour’s conference. So much so that more than one delegate was left wondering if Labour’s next first minister was competing in the B final, not the main event. Given the hostility to a Westminster MP contesting the leadership among Labour’s MSPs, running for deputy was an astute move by Sarwar, as victory will bring great profile, and, should the unthinkable happen and we discover that Lamont or Macintosh are no match for Alex Salmond, a young, energetic, telegenic alternative will be right at hand.

After all, this is Labour’s third leadership election in four years, so who knows, there might well be another one along soon enough.

In memoriam

The passing of Philip Gould was sad for everyone in the Labour movement, and Ed Miliband provided one of the more personal and moving tributes to the man behind so much of New Labour’s political positioning.
Miliband’s tribute was no pro forma salute, either. The Labour leader has a genuine, personal sense of gratitude to Gould who, despite not being a natural political ally, was always willing to offer support, counsel and advice. Gould was, I hear, utterly frank and completely discreet in his advice, a combination to be treasured in any adviser.

One of the things Gould’s untimely passing makes clear is how rare his skills were. It is almost a commonplace to say that Miliband has ‘not found his Gould’, but then neither has David Cameron, nor Nick Clegg, nor anyone else in British politics.

Yet of the pollsters and focus group experts that remain in the penumbra of the Labour party, there are real emerging talents, like James Morris, who advised Miliband in his leadership campaign and now provides polling advice from his current position as the head of the European arm of Stan Greenberg’s polling company, or Ben Shimshon, now working with Deborah Mattinson at Britain Thinks.

What marked Gould out was not, in the end, his facility for focus groups or polling numbers, but his ability to find a way to explain those insights to politicians. He was far more a political strategist than a pollster, and it is this combination of human insight and candour that made him so essential.
In the same way, the challenge for those who hope to make a contribution to Labour’s future is as much to find ways to tell politicians what they do not want to hear as it is to listen to what the electorate is saying.

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Cartoon: Adrian Teal

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