If the First Minister ever needed his ego stroked, he could just gaze upon the photo and headline in yesterday’s Herald and purr. Not just one Labour MP as Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland – Margaret Curran – but two full-time deputies in Willie Bain and Lord Browne and a further nine in double roles. As if shadowing important stuff like defence, energy, the Treasury and business weren’t big enough jobs on their own, nine Scottish Labour MPs, including new kids on the block like Ian Murray and Gemma Doyle and old hands like Anne McGuire, get to shadow Scotland too. And of course there are a further two big beasts in Douglas Alexander and Jim Murphy, getting to do big proper roles, all on their own.
What on earth has Scotland done to deserve this? Apart from vote SNP….
First though, congratulations are in order to Team Scotland, for catching the eye of the leader and securing promotion. Many of them should do well in their portfolio roles. They are, by and large, decent, talented politicians who deserve a chance to learn the ropes of policy and ministerialism with one eye on a government prize after 2016. Good luck to them all – here’s hoping they can help hold their Conservative and Liberal Democrat numbers to account in their portfolio roles.
But I wonder what Ed Miliband hopes to achieve by this cunning, but high risk ruse?
Some of the Scots have been promoted to largely issues that are England only – energy and climate change (Tom Greatrex); environment, food and rural affairs (Fiona O’Donnell); business (Ian Murray). Didn’t Miliband see enough of his predecessor’s travails in this area, of allowing MPs with no constituency or parliamentary locus to annoy the English by lording it over them? This is such an open goal for the Conservatives and I’m sure they will make the most of pointing out the practical effect of the West Lothian question in action.
And as I blogged on Saturday, MPs shadow each other, not governments or elected members in other places. Ostensibly. Either Michael Moore has hidden talents in the scare category that I was hitherto unaware of, or Labour is at it. If Miliband thinks the English won’t notice, and indeed, the Scots, he is sadly mistaken.
Meanwhile, Alex Salmond can line them all up and taunt them to give it their best shot. If it only takes eleven (and two of them are law officers) to run a country, how on earth can it take twelve Scottish Labour MPs – plus shadow Holyrood Ministers – to land a blow? You can tell the SNP spinmeisters are going to have hours of fun with this one.
This may indeed be Labour’s cunning plan to utilise as many Scottish Labour MPs as it can justify to mount a defend the Union campaign, but again I wonder if Miliband has thought this through. I’m not sure English voters are going to like his party using their money (and ours) to fight a party political campaign from beyond the boundaries of Scotland when actually there is a job for them to do associated with their erstwhile portfolios. It might all backfire on Labour at the next UK election. And in the referendum.
But worst of all, it makes a mockery of recent Labour party rule changes to make the Scottish party more autonomous and to make the next leader more than just the Leader of Labour in the Scottish Parliament but laird of all he surveys in Scotland. If ever he wanted to hamstring the next leader, this move will do it. Who will actually be in charge? Which voice should anyone pay attention to? What if they disagree? Who has primacy? Who gets first dibs? Who gets to lead Labour policy, Labour activity, Labour members, and perhaps, most relevantly Labour’s campaign in the independence referendum?
If I was one of the candidates for the Scottish Labour leadership, I’d be spitting mad at such an unsubtle manoeuvre that boxes him or her in, and which points up quite clearly who is boss. One of the constant refrains in Labour Hame blog posts about lessons wot we have learned from being gubbed in May, is that Labour in Scotland had lost the ability to tell a narrative that resounded with Scottish voters, to offer them something distinctly Scottish to vote for in Holyrood elections. We are, of course, a good distance out from the next Scottish election but having four and a bit years of muddle, disarray, disjointed voices, different opinions, too many cooks etc will do nothing for the party’s credibility with the electorate. Indeed, voters might decide to punish Labour in the 2015 UK election for such a morass.
And if I was a Member of the Scottish Parliament, I’d also be seething. It might be a much reduced one, but I thought Labour had a Team Scotland. Or is Miliband’s ruse a tacit acknowledgement that not only does he not know any of their names, he doesn’t care to know them and doesn’t much rate them either? Who is it will actually get to talk about Scottish matters to the Scottish electorate without confusing, or worse, alienating them further.
If it is to succeed – and it is a big if – such a strategy needs to be carefully planned and supremely executed. Frankly, I don’t think the party has such sureness of touch in it at the moment. It might be a cunning plan, but Miliband would do well to recall what happened to all of Baldrick’s.