Tom Harris’ speech launching his campaign to be Labour’s candidate for first minister

This contest must be decided on the qualities that matter

by Tom Harris

Two months ago, I became the first person to announce I wanted to stand – not as a candidate for the leadership of Scottish Labour, but as Labour’s candidate for first minister. I made that announcement because nearly four months after our dreadful result in May, there still had been precious little debate about the future direction of our party and how we could restore our electoral fortunes. There had been precious little debate, either, about the challenge of nationalism and the threat posed to Scotland through the break-up of the United Kingdom.

So, in the absence of virtually anyone else making the case for Labour or against the nationalists, I stepped forward.

Since then, I have led the debate on the future of our party and our nation.

In September I proposed the setting up of a standing commission on devolution, modelled on the successful Calman commission, so that decisions about which powers should in future rest with Westminster or with Holyrood could be decided on an rolling basis and, crucially, be evidence-based.

In October I was the first of the declared candidates – perhaps the first Labour parliamentarian – to call on my party to oppose outright the so-called anti-sectarianism bill.

And I was the first candidate – and again, the first parliamentarian – to set out in clear, precise terms the conditions that the nationalists should have to meet to avoid the intervention of the UK government in the conduct of the independence referendum.

I believe that in that short space of time I have shown my ability to lead and to set the agenda. Time and again I am told by ordinary party members that they are desperate to see some leadership – in developing a clear, attractive direction for our party, yes; but also in standing up to the nationalists, in exposing their bullying and their (so far successful) attempts to disguise wishful thinking as a positive vision.

That is what leadership candidates should do – set the agenda, challenge your party as well as other parties, offer new ideas. You should not be able to win any position of authority by keeping your head down and saying as little as possible. Any position worth having should be one you have to fight and argue for. And that’s what I have been doing.

Nevertheless, I have been unsuccessful so far in attracting the support of Labour’s MSPs, who have made it clear that they while they’re prepared to tolerate an MP standing in this contest – a contest, incidentally, not to replace Iain Gray, whose position will be abolished when he stands down; but to elect the first ever leader of the whole Scottish party, not just of our MSPs – they seem to have decided, collectively, that it would be unacceptable for an MP actually to win.

Given how serious our electoral position, it is discouraging that anyone could think it sensible to begin a search for a new leader by excluding more than half of parliamentarians eligible to vote in this contest. That we desperately need to draw on all our talents right across our party is an obvious truth recognised by the wider party, and – far more importantly – by the wider public, by those people who may have abandoned us in May but who are desperately willing us to get our act together.

The essential qualities required by our next leader is an ability to lead, to communicate, to articulate a vision, to connect. Most important of all is an ability to be seen by voters as a credible first minister. That is what the public want from us. And I fear they will not understand why an important and influential section of the Scottish Labour party seems to believe that the number of letters after a candidate’s name trumps all those qualifications.

I don’t believe that party members would wish me to allow the resistance of MSPs to my being a candidate to become a veto. I could, even now, choose to respect the reservations of my colleagues across the road. But I could do so only by ignoring the views of the ordinary members. And so my name will appear on the ballot paper.

I have a very clear view about the direction Scottish Labour needs to take. We need to re-assert our historic mission to represent working people. They need to know that we will spend every waking minute devising new policies to make it easier – or at least a bit less hard – to hold down a job while raising children and paying the bills on time every month. And we will either be, once again, the party of aspiration, or we will become an irrelevance.

And we need to meet head on the challenge of nationalism. We either stand in defence of devolution, of Scotland within the UK, or we don’t. Devo max is a nationalist ploy, aimed at disconcerting and confusing the Labour party. And I urge every Labour party member, however senior, not to give comfort to our opponents by falling into such an obvious bear trap.

I believe that if this contest is decided on the basis of what’s actually important – in other words, on the ability of the candidates, on our qualifications, our experience, our courage to lead – then I would hope to do well.

The Scottish people are watching, and they have the right to expect as much.

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

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16 Responses to “Tom Harris’ speech launching his campaign to be Labour’s candidate for first minister”

  1. Gregor Addison says:

    To become First Minister, Tom Harris would have to stand for Holyrood, given that the next Holyrood election if five years away, would the idea be to have a constituency MSP resign (forcing a by-election) or knocking someone off the list and placing Mr Harris at the top of the list for a seat? If it’s about waiting for the next Scottish election, then it’s a long time for Labour at Holyrood to have no fixed figurehead standing against the SNP. Rotating the job of taking on Alex Salmond may not be a successful strategy. It is curious that Tom Harris has been the only candidate to get so much coverage – why are the other candidates so silent? We caught our first glimpse of them together at the weekend but individually they have had little media coverage. This gives the impression that for the Labour machine there is really only one true candidate – Tom Harris. So far, the debate hasn’t got much beyond hating the SNP; there is little mention of policy, as if the order is to choose a leader first, work out the policies later. What exactly are people voting for? It surely becomes a beauty contest. Why not spend the current waking minutes devising some policies, instead of waiting until afterwards?

    In Tom Harris’ speech which can be read on Labour Hame, he argues that the move towards independence is about identity politics. I’d argue that it is about democracy – it is about the ‘democratic deficit’ that Labour used to talk of, about enhancing the powers of the Scottish parliament and not, as Calman sets out, taking powers away. No one voted for Calman. It was in no manifesto. The SNP majority in May can certainly be seen as a rejection of Calman. Polling evidence suggests that around 76% of people in Scotland want more powers for the Scottish Parliament and they want less Westminster involvement. They do not want another caretaker First Minister.

  2. swatantra says:

    I agree with Harris that Scots Labour needs a new direction, and wish him luck.
    Stepping down as an MP before the Leadership election would certainly show that Harris is serious about his bid. It really needs a big hitter with Westminster experience to stand up to Salmond, although I would have prefered Darling or Murphy to have thrown in their hat. If he by any chance does win then he definitely must leave Westminster and stnd for Holyrood.

  3. Gregor Addison says:

    It looks like my previous post has been deleted. So much for open debate. The essence of my argument was that Calman was brought forward by Wendy Alexander and was not in Labour’s manifesto – but at the election in May, supporting Calman, the Labour party lost heavily. Surely this was a rejection of Calman? Polls regularly show that around 76% of voters in Scotland want more change and identify with the Scottish Parliament more than with Westminster. So to stand on a platform where Calman is the only show in town (a platform which advocates taking powers away from the Scottish Parliament as well as giving powers) seems already outdated. But it does seem to be what is on offer from Tom Harris.

    If Tom Harris is to become First Minister, he will need to stand for election to the Scottish Parliament. Since the elections are five years away, this means that Labour would have to pick a parliamentary leader, or rotate the FMQs job; possibly not a good idea. It might be that Tom Harris could get onto the list somehow, or that someone who holds a constituency seat could step down and force a by-election. As to the vision of Scotland on offer, there has been little debate from candidates (indeed we have barely heard from Johann Lamont and have heard only a little from Ken MacKintosh). It does seem that we are getting the leadership contest before the policies, which makes me wonder on what grounds that leader is being chosen.

  4. Gregor Addison says:

    And now it returns. What is going on with the posts? And why does the article show ‘no comments’?

  5. swatantra says:

    …. and if by any chance Harris wins, a ‘safe’ seat can always be found for him in a byelection next year.
    But Holyrood should be given more powers and there should be a certain distance between ScotsLabour and the Labour Party as a whole.

  6. Gregor Addison says:


    So Holyrood MSPs are the B-team, are they? No wonder they lost so heavily.

  7. AmberStar says:

    @ Gregor Addison

    Polls regularly show that around 76% of voters in Scotland want more change and identify with the Scottish Parliament more than with Westminster.
    Checked the turnout of voters at 2011 for Holyrood compared to the 2010 Westminster election, have you?

  8. AmberStar says:

    @ Swatantra

    But Holyrood should be given more powers and there should be a certain distance between ScotsLabour and the Labour Party as a whole.
    What!? The whole point of reforming the Labour Party in Scotland is to get Labour MPs in Scotland working more closely with the MSPs. We are, I hope, bringing Labour closer together not widening the gap.

    We need less distance, not more. Geographically, the entire world is getting closer but the SNP speak as if London is on Mars instead of a 45 minute flight or a few hours by train from central Scotland. Please don’t join in with their nonsense.

    Politically speaking, the direction Ed Miliband is taking the Labour Party towards northern voters. Wales, the Midlands & North of England are all solidly Labour in the polls. London, it is neck & neck between Labour & Tory. In Scotland, it is a draw between Labour & the SNP… which is remarkable for Labour, given Britain has a Tory government which doesn’t have a majority, yet is managing to inflict austerity on the entire nation. There’s nothing which makes the SNP more attractive to Scots than voting Labour & getting Tory. You need look no further than that as the reason why Labour lost support to the SNP at the 2011 election.

  9. AmberStar says:

    @ Tom Harris

    I was at the one day conference in Glasgow. You aren’t being discriminated against because you’re an MP not an MSP, you just weren’t very convincing, I’m sad to say. We prefer what’s his name, Ken something or other… 😉

  10. Gregor Addison says:

    Amber Star, the polling evidence I was talking about was not elections. The polling evidence over several years has shown that Scottish voters want increased powers for the parliament. Tom Harris seems to be suggesting that devolution has gone far enough and that Calman is the asnwer – but Calman can also take powers away and that, I believe, will be deeply unpopular in Scotland. With the Tories campaigning on no more change, and Labour potentially following suit, the SNP may be the only party offering more powers. How are you going to talk down more powers? So far the way Labour has done this is to offer negative visions of a post-independent Scotland that sound remarkably like what the Tories said would happen after devolution. Douglas Alexander asked for a new story, a positive story of aspirations, where is that story? It is currently being drowned out (if it exists at all) by attacks on ‘cybernats’.

  11. Mike Homfray says:

    Like it or not, if Harris is elected, it will be a gift to the SNP who will point out just how little labour respects and cares for Holyrood. If Harris really wanted this job he should have stood for Holyrood in the first place – and high time those of calibre in Scotland recognised this should be their future aim

  12. Gregor Addison says:


    I wasn’t referring to the election results but to the results of polling evidence which suggests that around 76% of people want more change, whilst it seems there are those in the Labour party – Tom Harris among them – who think devolution has gone far enough. I suspect the politics of the possible is more attractive than the politics of the unwilling and that Scottish voters will vote for more powers – since, when asked, that is what they want.

  13. Gregor Addison says:

    Another poll out which shows that people in Scotland want more powers for the parliament. 28% for independence, 29% for the status quo, and 33% for Devo Max. That means that those who want change, who want increased powers, are by far the majority – consistent with previous polls. Labour will have to decide if they are for no more change, for Calman (which also advocates taking powers off of the parliament) or for progressive change.

  14. AmberStar says:

    @ Gregor Addison

    I wasn’t referring to the election results but to the results of polling evidence which suggests that around 76% of people want more change…
    Sure; & I saw the TNS poll too. The tables are up on their website, if you didn’t already know that.

    What the polls don’t ask: How much do the electorate want change? Where, on their list of priorities, would they rank this issue?

    Because Alex Salmond did not strike a mighty blow for independence at the 2011 election… turnout just crawled over the 50% mark. That’s how not interested
    Scottish citizens are in independence or who runs Holyrood.

  15. Gregor Addison says:

    Oh come on. Now you want us to forget it was a poll on constitutional change and imagine it has a ranking along with other issues. If there’s a referendum the turnout will show how important it’s ranked. Given that Labour got trounced in May, what does that tell us about how voters ranked Labour’s priorities?

    And since we’re now counting those who didn’t vote – did those who stayed at home not vote for independence, or did they not vote for Labour?

  16. swatantra says:

    And if Harris were an MSP, would he sign the ‘Claim of Right’?

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