I’m not a big fan of the Blairite way of delivering a speech. All short phrases, big pauses and hand gestures. It’s phoney and folk see through it. Ed Miliband has bought it and you can see him straining his sinews with every earnest soundbite and tortured piece of syntax. Yeuch.
But Johann Lamont spoke so fast, she scarcely paused to draw breath, never mind to allow some “dear leader” style applause. Nerves I suppose, but it is also who she is. That is brave, setting out your stall as take me as you find me, yet it is also foolhardy. There were some big themes and interesting ideas in her speech that were buried by the staccato pace of delivery. Shame.
Still, these things can be improved upon. As can the speeches themselves. Far too much content, far too much detail. he political hacks were suggesting it was really Paul Sinclair’s speech. If so, get someone else in, Johann. Maybe ask Douglas Alexander for advice: his are crafted well these days.
The problem with Johann’s first leader’s speech is that it was crammed full of half-gestated ideas. And there was a big chunk about internal machinations to make Scottish Labour “better” that should have been left out and made in a separate announcement.
Worst of all was the fixation on Alex Salmond (even the SNP was reduced to a bit-part player). If internationalism is Labour’s lodestar, then Salmond appears to be Johann’s touchstone. No leader should allow her or himself to be defined by her opposite number to this degree: the speech was peppered with mentions of him and every time a positive idea was promoted, it was quickly dragged back into the SNP’s orbit. I found myself tutting in annoyance in the end, so if it did that to me….
But at least there is evidence of a pulse, that there is some thinking going on about how to articulate a pro-Union case. The bit that worked in particular was where she likened the SNP’s case for independence to a pro-Union case: “if even the SNP acknowledge that Scotland needs the UK for a stable currency, a growing energy market and to keep our defence industries why would we contemplate leaving it?”
The idea of a test for powers – “our test is different to the nationalists. Our test is what is in the best interests of the people of Scotland” – is also interesting and expect to see it developed and used more in the months ahead. “I will not be seduced into the place where which powers you demand is a test of political virility. Where calling for corporation tax to be devolved somehow makes you harder, or more Scottish, or even more progressive.”
What constitutes progressive is another battlefield. Lamont had a fair old pop at the SNP’s view of progressive: “in Alex Salmond’s progressive Scotland, he took a 2 per cent cut from the Tories, doubled it and handed it to Scotland’s councils. We are seeing the consequences of these decisions in our communities every day.” This was where Johann Lamont felt most at home in questioning what she sees as unfairness and inequality, delving deep into conventional Labour mores.
Is it fair that an elderly person has his care visits – possibly his only contact with the outside world – squeezed into 15 minute windows because their care worker is overstretched?… Is it right that in Fife, where 25 per cent of school leavers go to Adam Smith and Carnegie Colleges and 2.5 per cent go to St Andrews University, it is college funding that is attacked?… Is it acceptable that families are trapped in sub-standard or inappropriate homes because we cannot meet the shortfall in housing demand?”
Lamont is definitely more comfortable on this territory than Salmond is, in talking about small and specific issues which are real and tangible to folk. This is the manifestation of what Lamont sees as real Labour, though it did not impress Alex Massie, who likened the economics of her premise to Dinosaur Labour. The idea of redistribution of wealth might be a little old-school but that doesn’t make it obsolete. And Lamont’s positing of a question around progression and redistribution has potential mileage: “is it in the interests of Scotland to enter into tax competition with London, or as someone who has a progressive vision for Scotland, is it better to have a unified tax policy which redistributes wealth to where it is needed most? What matters most in this is not theories of the state, but what these powers do for people.”
The premise that was tested in this speech, that not only is being in the United Kingdom good for Scotland but that Scotland is good for the United Kingdom is likely to feature in Scottish Labour’s referendum campaign – and if they play it right, it could elicit a shrill response from the SNP. As could Lamont’s gallus adoption and promotion of Scottish credentials. “I will wear the saltire with pride, but I won’t bind it around my eyes so I cannot see the injustice in our country” featured at the top of her speech and near its climax, she proclaimed that she expresses her patriotism, “not in a separate Scotland but a better Scotland“.
All in all, this wasn’t a great speech but it was a decent effort, especially for a first time leader not particularly comfortable with grandiose speech-making.
It tested out a lot of ideas, particularly around the positive case for the Union. Reaction to these internally and externally will determine whether these ideas become part of the full-blown narrative. It positioned Johann Lamont in a very different place from Alex Salmond in terms of pitch and approach – small and specific as opposed to big and generic. No gimmicks, no flummery and certainly no cheesy anthem at the end.
And it started the long haul of redefining Labour. We got a glimmer of what real – not old, not new – Labour under Lamont will look like. There was a huge dollop of Scottish Labour. And we got a sense of Lamont’s purpose in the coming years:
“We will re-build our party, re-connect with our country, win and put social justice and fairness at the top of the agenda again. And this time we will do it better than before.”
Before all that, of course, there’s a referendum to defeat.