28 June 2013

Lamont's reshuffle and 2016

Just a second, short thought for today. This afternoon, Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont has reshuffled her depleted deck of Scottish parliamentarians. The party's diffident finance spokesman Ken Macintosh has suffered a complete fracture of the neck, and will be replaced by a revivified Iain Gray, his napper recovered from the wicker basket which the public consigned it to in 2011. 

Among the other critical parliamentary roles, the North East's Lewis MacDonald, always an uneasy fit with the Justice brief Johann bestowed on him in 2011, is to be replaced by Graeme Pearson, formerly a senior police officer. Kezia Dugdale elbows aside the lugubrious whippet-form of Hugh Henry, Labour's new education spokesman.  Jackie Baillie is relieved of her health brief, to be replaced by Neil Findlay.  Among other noviates, blooded after a year or two in the parliament, the constitutional gig goes to young Drew Smith of the Glasgow regional list.  Which got me to wondering: is this reshuffle a recipe for the Labour party eating itself alive going into 2016?

Health, education, justice - all three major portoflios, all going to new (and in some cases, quite accidental) elections from Labour's regional list.  In terms of parliamentary strategy, there are clear benefits to Gray over the nigh invisible Mr Macintosh. Several of the other folk Johann has tapped seem admirable enough characters too, as far as it goes.  

What seems much, much more problematic, however, is how the party is going to manage and maintain this team, going into 2016.  Bracket the independence referendum for a moment, ignore its outcome. Either way, in and into 2016, Lamont will be hoping to cultivate an image of an alternative government to set against Salmond's: credible, competent, waiting in the wings to take up the reigns of government. A band of folk with a political plan, and for electoral purposes, ideally both recognisable and savvy-seeming.  Given Lamont's disposition, and her current public profile, this'll have to be a team effort. 

And here's where today's reshuffle, despite its superficial lustre, begins to looks decidedly problematic. First, take Graeme Pearson, their new justice spokesman.  Elected to the South of Scotland list in 2011, Pearson came into the parliament from second place ranking on the Labour list in the region, after Claudia Beamish. While two of his party colleagues held constituencies in Dumfriesshire (Elaine Murray) and East Lothian (Iain Gray), Labour lost the two constituencies of Clydesdale and Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley to the SNP.  

If Labour's fortunes improve electorally, they might hope to reclaim these two constituencies - but what then for Graeme Pearson? In the South of Scotland in 2007, Labour held no regional seats whatsoever. Nor in 2003. Nor in 1999. The upshot? If the party's new Justice spokesman is going to keep his seat if Labour support increases, he'll have to muscle in on a winnable constituency. That or hope Labour experience another 2011-style trouncing. The first would-be minister in Lamont's government-in-waiting may well find himself waiting outside of Holyrood, even if his party won the 2016 election. Such things cannot encourage confidence.

The same goes for the Labour's new health spokesman and the lady now in charge of Labour's education policy. Neil Findlay was elected as an MSP for the Lothian region in 2011 by dint of his party's calamitous showing in the constituencies in that region.  Findlay was the third of the three regional Labour members elected after Sarah Boyak and the party's new education spokesman, Kezia Dugdale.

In 2007, Labour saw a single Lothian list MSP elected (the irrepressible Lord George Foulkes) and none in 1999 and 2003. If the party's fortunes revive in Edinburgh and its environs, Findlay is likely to find himself in electoral bother, looking for a constituency seat to scrap for, or warring his comrades for a decent ranking on the Lothians list. We all know how unseemly such internal internecine conflicts can become. Either way, the likelihood of both or either of Lamont's new education and health front benchers being re-elected in 2016 currently looks shoogly, and will need careful managing if it is to come off. 

The same uncertainty goes for Gray's new deputy and youth employment spokesperson, Jenny Marra, though her position looks more comfortable. Elected second on the North East regional list, since 2003, Labour have seen at least two regional MSPs elected out of the North East, and three in 2011. If Marra can sustain her list ranking, she should be able to hold on into the 2016 election, all things being equal.  By contrast, Drew Smith, elected on the Glasgow list, has cause to approach the next Holyrood election more fatalistically.

Looked at in the round, for her government-in-waiting, Johann Lamont has gathered about her a range of folk who may struggle to get back into Holyrood in 2016, even if Labour do splendidly well, and particularly if the party did splendidly well in constituency races. That is an unenviable position. While ditching the footering and ineffectual Ken Macintosh and the egregious Richard Baker can only be good news for Scottish Labour, the frailty of this new leadership team's grip on political office can only undermine Lamont's efforts to make her, and her crew, cut credible figures, ready for government. It has few of the hallmarks of a winning political slogan. Vote for us. None of us will take office if you do.


  1. The only strategy here that I can see is that Labour is going to parachute these list MSPs into constituencies that went unexpectedly to the SNP last time and which saw their former big hitters dethroned. I'm thinking, for example, of Andy Kerr or Charlie Gordon's seats. Perhaps they think by increasing the profile of the ministers in question, they'll galvanize a Nicola Sturgeon effect where they can feasibly take seats from a backbench SNP MSP with little profile who was elected equally unexpectedly to Parliament last time.

    1. But - I'd have thought - easier said than done. No shortage of local, ambitious would-be Labour parliamentarians and dethroned representatives, itching to come back for a second crack at the constituencies they lost. I don't have much insight into the internal character of how Scottish Labour does these things, but to the external eye, the use of parachutes - political and actual - always seems to me to be fraught with potential perils.

  2. One thing you've maybe overlooked - you say "ignore the referendum", but if there's a Yes vote how many of these diddies will have any chance of competing with the dozens of Westminster MPs who'll suddenly have found themselves out of a job?

    Some may try for English seats and some may head for lucrative "consultancy" jobs, but there'll surely be a hefty chunk of Scottish Labour seat-fillers no good for anything else on the lookout for a Holyrood berth?

    1. RevStu,

      A fair point. I rather mean "ignore the referendum so this blog post doesn't expand to an unseemly and unreadable scale" rather than ignore the impact it might have altogether. If we win in 2014, many of these pressures will clearly intensify, with erstwhile Labour MPs looking for work both north and south of the border, I'd imagine. Heaven knows what it'd do to the party. We'd be in the zone of the existential crisis, I should have thought. May do no end of good.

  3. Some, MSPs and MPs will go back to being Social Workers, hacks and general cooncillors, whilst awaiting the resurgence of the god given rights.

    Others will sign on and try to get real jobs; ha!

  4. Well good luck to Johann - Jenny Marra is the only one of the promotions I have any knowledge of and I have high hopes of her - but again you get the odd feeling that all this reshuffling and change is taking place in a vacuum - or at least a space that has no relevance to the Scottish people. As Rory Bremner demonstrated, few of the bodies on the Scottish omnibus have a clue as to who their political representatives are (only 50% of the electorate voted for any of them after all). Allied to this apathy in the street is the fact. so ably demonstrated in your last post, that our politicians are a purring bunch of houstrained puddy tats -

    'One detail which did catch my eye in yesterday's debate, however, was the political thumbscrew operations behind the scenes which it disclosed. Of the eight MSPs who supported emancipating some folk in jail, we had Margo MacDonald the two Green MSPs, three Liberal Democrats (their two islander MSPs, Tavish Scott and Liam McArthur being absent), and Jean Urquhart and John Finnie - the two former SNP MSPs who resigned from the party after the NATO debate. No serving Nationalists joined them. Breathing the free, if chilly, air of independency, perhaps?'

    Our main parties are in lockdown, with dissenters are as rare as frocks at a Lewis funeral. Our democracy is in a bad way.