Three little words: why Tom Harris is serious about being first minister

by Tom Harris

Ah, the working class disease!

A couple of weeks ago a radio interviewer asked me if I was serious about being a candidate to succeed Iain Gray as leader of the Scottish Labour party. Ever mindful of the tendency of Scots to mutter, “I kent his faither” – in other words, “Who does he think he is?” – I mumbled something about only wishing to smoke out Westminster’s “big beasts”, Jim Murphy and Douglas Alexander.

Understandably, the SNP issued a gleeful press release stating that I was my own third choice for leader. Only ten minutes into my campaign and I had already made a rookie mistake. You have to want the position you’re going for. You have to want it bad.

And I do.

When, in 2007, Labour lost power at Holyrood by the slimmest of electoral margins possible, I realised that Labour’s position as the traditional repository of working class votes was going the same way as our briefly-held reputation as a safe haven for middle class voters – down the tubes. I felt strongly then that I could do more good for my country/countries and my party by relocating from Westminster to Holyrood at the first available opportunity. I talked it over with some journalist friends, all of whom were entirely encouraging. I also talked it over with my closest political confidante at the time, David Cairns. He was less encouraging. I’ll leave further details of our many conversations at that for the time being.

No obvious seat becoming vacant, I bided my time, succumbing to the delusion prevalent throughout the party that everything would be alright in the end, believing opinion poll conclusions that Iain Gray would, after all, lead Scottish Labour back into government in Edinburgh, and that the immediate threat of nationalism would be halted, at least for now.

And then, on May 5, the tectonic plates shifted and Labour found itself back in opposition with just 15 constituency seats – down from 53 in 1999 – and 22 additional members from the regional lists. Even worse, Salmond had an overall majority, something that the new electoral system developed by the Scottish constitutional convention was explicitly designed to prevent.

So calamitous were these events, so dire is the threat to our very relevance in Scottish politics, that we have moved like greased lightning to provide remedies. A mere six months after our defeat in May, we will hold a special one-day conference in Scotland to debate and (we hope) approve the Scottish Labour party’s new constitution and the timetable for the election of Iain’s successor. A week before Christmas, when the whole nation won’t have anything else on its mind at all and will be focusing entirely on politics, we will choose a new leader whose first task will be to lead us into a local election campaign and a polling day barely five months away.

There are many in Scottish Labour who say with total confidence that the new leader must be an MSP, not an MP, even though he or she will be leader of the whole Scottish party and not, as his/her predecessors were, merely leaders of the Labour MSPs at Holyrood.

I can see the logic in that position. The legislature of which a candidate is currently a member should be a factor. But it certainly shouldn’t be the most important one.

Scottish voters don’t set their Sky+ boxes to record first minister’s questions every Thursday, or PMQs every Wednesday. The battle for Scotland’s future will not be settled in the chambers of Holyrood or Westminster. It will be settled in the workplace, the home, the high street, over the internet and, above all, in the television studio.

If we imagine that we can reach the voters who have deserted us – and, crucially, those voters who have never considered supporting us before and to whom we need to make a fresh appeal – by turning up for the first 15 minutes of first minister’s questions every week, then we’ve already lost.

The three most dangerous words in the English language as far as Scottish Labour is concerned? “Business as usual”.

No-one in Scotland is listening to us at the moment, and that isn’t going to change unless we show that we’re prepared to do the unexpected, to think differently from what we’ve been used to these past 12 years.

Playing safe just won’t cut it any more.

Tom Harris is Labour MP for Glasgow South and a prospective Labour candidate for first minister.

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12 Responses to “Three little words: why Tom Harris is serious about being first minister”

  1. AnneJGP says:

    Go for it, Tom. You seem to have been entirely wasted within UK Labour. I think you would be an admirable leader. I wish you well.

  2. aragon says:

    Scotish Labour’s problem, is that Labour (UK) is just too far to the right for Scotland (and many in England and Wales).

    But in Scotland there is a more socialist alternative ?

  3. swatantra says:

    Just 2 words to Harris: forget it.
    Scots Labour needs someone with clout, like Darling, Brown or Alexander.

  4. Laura says:

    I think that eventually the leader should be a Holyrood leader but right now what is needed is vision and energy. After all, being Westminster-based didn’t harm Salmond any. And a Westminster-based leader might be better placed to point the party back to Scotland than some poor relation in Holyrood. Go for it, Tom, look where being the candidate ‘only standing to represent a point of view’ got Ed 🙂

  5. JamesB says:

    Scottish Labour should remember the Jack Layton (Canadian NDP) precedent for leading a political party to success from outside of Parliament. It is possible.

    Good luck Tom!

  6. Gregor Addison says:

    Part of Labour’s problem was that when Tony Blair took over the party, he changed the way the party did business – and not for the better. He turned conference into a media show piece where debate was discouraged (even to the extent that an 82 year old man was ejected from conference for heckling). The party then tried to get rid of internal dissent by deselecting candidates such as Dennis Canavan. Tony Blair ensured that internal debate and dissent were a thing of the passed, and instead we got glitzy New Labour. Jim Murphy and Sarah Boyack are heirs to the latter tradition.

    In Scotland, the introduction of devolution was seen as an answer to the ‘democratic deficit’ of the 80s and 90s, whereby the Tories were able to dictate policy in Scotland, despite the fact that the majority vote in Scotland had gone to the Labour party. At the moment, we have a similar ‘democratic deficit’ which devolution seems not to have answered. We currently have 1 Tory MP dictating policy to a country that rejected his party (a party that is in disarray and may soon disappear). Devolution, it seems, has not fully solved the problem of the ‘democratic deficit’. It was always seen as a solution to the problematic parts of the UK (the so-called ‘periphery’) and as such did not deal with the lasting problem: England. Devolution without including England was never going to be anything but a partial solution to the problem of representative democracy not being fully representative in the UK.

    Now we have the Labour party in Scotland (if that is to be the new brand) acknowledging that they did not devolve along with the Scottish Parliament. Perhaps they will come to recognise that Scotland’s finances need also to be devolved, and that a solution to Scotland’s problem lies either in a devolution settlement extended to England, or in Scotland’s hands (through independence).

    Personally, I don’t see how Labour in Scotland can have a leader who is a back bench MP at Westminster. I would have thought the leader should be whoever stands up at First Minister’s Questions in the Scottish Parliament and faces Alex Salmond. There is a danger that in having a Westminster MP the party will still look like it doesn’t trust its Scottish MSPs or voters. Unfortuneately, the alternative may be Johann Lamont, who would be a fate worse than Iain Gray. If Labour do not get their house in order, and soon, they will lose heavily at the upcoming council elections in Scotland. If that happens, the party’s traditional base will be narrowed even further. The collapse of the Lib Dems and the Tories may play into the hands of the SNP. Labour may yet follow and go the way of the Scottish Tories and the Scottish Lib Dems.

  7. AmberStar says:

    ….& Sarah Boyack are heirs to the latter [Blairite] tradition.
    I think calling Sarah Boyack a Blairite is a bit silly. I’ve stood with Sarah at Union protests against privatisation of Edinburgh Council services & seen her at other marches & rallies.

  8. AmberStar says:

    Only ten minutes into my campaign and I had already made a rookie mistake.
    Yes, somebody who makes rookie mistakes is definitely what we need up here in Scotland to go head to head with Alex Salmond!

    If we’re having an import, please can it be Andy Burnham (I know, in our dreams!). Seriously, he’d be perfect. Northener with Irish Catholic roots. Experience of the major briefs: Health & Education.

    But he’s not Scottish, you say… Excellent, say I. That would bring a whole new aspect to his leadership. And if the SNP tried to make something of it, they’d look small-minded, parochial & a tad racist. If we’re having an MP, instead of an MSP, let’s make sure it’ll be one who can win (no offence, Tom but your remark about ‘smoking out a big hitter’ was spot on).

  9. Gregor Addison says:

    So it’s important that the leader is an Irish Catholic? And you’re calling the SNP parochial?

  10. AmberStar says:

    @ Gregor Addison

    So it’s important that the leader is an Irish Catholic? And you’re calling the SNP parochial?
    Good point… but Scottish politics is what it is. And I want Labour to remain a British Party which can win in Scotland & keep Britain together.

  11. Gregor Addison says:

    Even if it means pandering to one religious group? You’re sure you want Scotland to be united? It sounds like a recipe for division. As for Labour remaining British – that will be up to the electorate. I think we might just see a split emerging in the Labour party in Scotland soon; MSPs and MPs are at each others throats, Labour in Glasgow and North Lanarkshire have deselected Labour councillors who won seats at the last council elections, calling them ‘deadwood’. 17 councillors in Glasgow are to be replaced to make way for the likes of Frank McAveety, who the voters deselected at the Scottish Parliament elecitons, and a long term colleague of his has reported him to the police for fraud. Labour can’t unite their party in Scotland never mind Britain. I don’t think things are set to get better. I’m looking forward to the council elections next year when Labour’s base is narrowed still further and the corruption that has been rife for a long time in certain quarters of Scottish Labour is brought to an end by the electorate voting them out of office. If that happens, then you’d better hope for a pan-Unionist alliance because there isn’t much left of an opposition in Scotland. Why? Because the Labour party, like the other opposition parties, have failed to take seriously the failure of our representative democracy to represent Scotland at Westminster. As voters found out at the last Westminster election, you vote Labour, you get Tory.

  12. Gregor Addison says:

    “Good point… but Scottish politics is what it is.” How refreshing! Most people say they got into politics to change things.

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