26 September 2011

Tom Harris: Paratrooper?

Given the prospect of Tom Harris' candidacy for the Scottish Labour leadership, quite a few folk have been talking about parachutes. Unsatisfied with the ground troops on parade in Holyrood, and rather than let Harris bash himself to bits in a forlorn hope, there are also signs (best I can read them) that Labour may also seek out its new deputy leader from amongst their first battalion, presently billeted down in London.  Although Harris is likely to appeal to Eckly parallels in the justification of ruling his party from his seat in the Imperial Parliament, the political difficulties for Labour presented by this stratagem are plain enough. Although Harris has already made clear that it would be his intention to stand for Holyrood in the 2016 election, some might well ask, why not engineer his entry into the Scottish Parliament a little sooner? 

A reasonable question, you might well think, but scoping the (im)practicalities of the thing is suggestive of the difficulty Labour is faced with.  Option one. Grab one of your existing tribunes by the ear, give them your most Ciceronian patter about the party interest, your eternal gratitude - and have them step down, leaving the leader with a clear descent into the vacated seat in Holyrood. You can imagine the headlines: a daring act of derring-do by the party's new captain, an unanticipated advance; the SNP blindsided and stammering, caught in the sticky fibres of their own rhetoric about Harris' "London" leadership. Doable? Perhaps. The problem with this scheme, however, is that after their May drubbing, Labour has significantly less capacity for this sort of card trick. While Labour's overall clutch of seats fell from forty six to thirty seven, as the now-very-yellow electoral map of Scotland depicts, their loss of constituencies was far more significant, shrinking from the 37 constituency seats held in 2007 to only 15 in 2011. In Harris' own Glasgow, Labour holds only four seats, and I don't fancy his chances of convincing any of the incumbents to fork them over. Moreover, outside the central belt, a number of Labour constituencies were held by ornery and locally-appealing characters, rather than the sort of gormless party hack Harris would be looking for. Can you see Malcolm Chisholm relinquishing Leith, or Elaine Murray her seat in the Borders? Nor I. Perhaps the weary Iain Gray might be the best target for Harris' charms in East Lothian, but given that Gray's majority was an exceedingly slim 151, the constituency hardly has the characteristics of Labour shoo-in (but then again, where does in Scotland, these days?).

Of course, it may be that through tragedy, scandal or accident, some other winnable seat will fall vacant, and Harris or Sarwar could take a crack at it, without scandalising his own tribunes in Edinburgh. From aerial perspective, the drop-sites for parachuting Harris into a Holyrood constituency seem minimal, and potentially treacherous terrain for a tender, self-conscious commander.  What about the regional lists? After all, several folk were unexpectedly elected on those. With a quiet word in a few shell-likes, couldn't those in situ be persuaded to give way in their party's interest? Many of the twenty two regional MSPs are more junior figures in the party, without their own established bases of support in the constituencies in question, perhaps they would be more amenable to agreeing to their own replacement? 

The basic question is, what happens to a regional seat when a party's regional list is exhausted? Most of you will likely be most familiar with the process following the death of the SNP list MSP for Glasgow, Bashir Ahmad, who was replaced by an Indygal who went to Holyrood, who was ranked after Ahmad on the regional list. What would have happened if the SNP had only put forward a slate of five regional candidates, and Ahmad had been the fifth elected? Would the Nationalists have been able to nominate whomsoever they wish to take up the post vacated by his death? Would there have to be a Glasgow-wide by-election? Could Harris use this as a way of sneaking into the Scottish Parliament, without riling his constituency colleagues?

Unfortunately for him, the law proves recalcitrant, and unamenable to participating in the scheme. Sections 9 and 10 of the Scotland Act 1998 govern what happens when seats in Holyrood fall vacant. The death, resignation or retirement of a constituency member causes a by-election to take place in the usual way. In the regions, by contrast, if the list put forward by a political party is exhausted, the seats remain unfilled till the next election. The same goes for those elected on the region as independent candidates. This detail isn't purely academic. Firstly, it absolutely rules out any cunning jiggery-pockery to vault Harris into Holyrood via a regional seat. Harris is  stuck with the unpromising vista of fifteen Labour Scottish parliamentary constituencies which he might consider inveigling his way into, or the option of biding his time on the off-chance some other, handily-placed constituency falls vacant before 2016. Secondly, the strictures of section ten of the 1998 Act mean that if Margo MacDonald decided to vacate the seat she won in Lothian in the 2011 election before 2016, it would simply remain vacant until 2016, and would not be reallocated. Finally, in Central Scotland, the SNP have actually exhausted their regional list already, all of their candidates - Alex Neil, Michael Matheson, Jamie Hepburn, Linda Fabiani, Richard Lyle, Christina McKelvie, Angus MacDonald, John Wilson, Clare Adamson - having been elected in respect of constituencies or returned in Central Scotland itself.



  1. Paratrooper?

    I think he'll need a tank...

  2. I don;t think he would even consider standing dowm. It's not just about finding a winnable seat, it's about what happens to his old seat. A by-election in Glasgow South? Which in Holyrood terms is Cathcart plus a bit of Southside - both SNP held. Same goes for Anas Sarwar whose Central seat in Holyrood terms is Southside, plus a bit of Kelvin plus a little bit of Shettleston - again all SNP held.

    Too risky. How bad would it look if the seat left vacated by the new leader or depute leader of Scottish Labour was lost to the SNP?

  3. Pah, tish and furthermore bother, yet another Centralista positing views furth of the Union canal without the assistance of either map or sextant. La Murray holds the electoral hopes of the good people of 'Dumfries' in her tiny tears child-like hands, not the all encompassing 'Borders'.

    266 years ago, Doonhamers pelted the departing Bonnie Prince Charlie with their siller buckled shoes. I fear Mr Peat Worrier may suffer a similar fate when next he dons periwig and ventures south of the Nith...

    I believe that Mr Harris has an infeasibly large forehead and in the style of Dominic Medina, could quite easily mesmerise Ms Jackie Baillie into donning a Blacks of Greenock ermine and mink cape and vacate her ample seat.

    Reality, however, dictates that Ms Lamont shall be the bane of the Tartan Overlord's lugs for the next few years, aided and abetted by the non arsonist scion of the House of Sher...

  4. Through some sort of quirk of the electoral system I live in both Nicola Sturgeons' MSP seat and Tom Harris's Westminster seat.

    Quite why Tom gets re-elected all the time is one of life's mysteries.

    The only chance he has of getting elected to Hollyrood, it seems to me, is to continue to be unknown outside of the Scottish political cognoscenti or on-line blog freaks.

    It is probably also clear that he has absolutely no chance of defeating Nicola Sturgeon for the affections of South siders.

    So, your question is valid. How, exactly, does Tom Harris become relevant? Or elected.

  5. Conan,

    I did suggest that Harris assume a Napoleonic style for his candidacy - full of dash and vigour - but he seemed nonplussed, alas.


    I share your apprehension that either of the two relinquishing their Westminster seat in the course of the parliament seems unlikely. Mostly, I thought it worth indulging the speculation far enough, to show that some of the options being mooted aren't legally permitted.


    As an erstwhile colleague at university once advised me: "never mess with Borderers". Your delightfully circumlocutory admonition is well taken.

    douglas clark,

    I'm a Sturgeon/Sarwar Southsider, myself. As I recall, Pater PeatWorrier, an inveterate Nationalist, met Harris during the 2010 election campaign. In conversation, apparently Harris cheerfully trashed Labour in Holyrood and in Westminster. It's one approach...

  6. Harris always seemed a bright sort of chap to me - as well as being his own man as so few Scottish politicians are and a nice chap - but I was astounded at him rambling on about enlisting Billy Connolly to the Anti-Nat cause.

    Terribly presumptuous and impolite thing to do I thought. Amazing how smoothly everything keeps rolling for the Eckosaurus - he is immensely lucky in his opponents.

  7. Edwin Moore,

    I too quite like Harris. He seems to me to lack the usual politicians 'guid conceit of themselves'.

    Which is a good thing.

    Sadly, his politics are not my politics....

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  9. I'll delete that post, as I see you already discussed its subject. That'll learn me to read posts before commenting on them.

  10. I can't believe it but it just hit me that Ken Macintosh is Spock/Leonard Nimoy!!!