Sunday, 29 June 2014

Healing the rift?

The Scottish Left is famous for splits, ructions and tensions, but a new generation of socialists aligned to the Yes campaign is discussing plans to unite the Left after September 18th.

I wrote about this subject in the Sunday Herald today, but here is a fuller version:

By Paul Hutcheon

TALKS are underway about creating a new left-wing party in the wake of the independence referendum.
Figures in the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) and the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) have discussed uniting left-wing groups divided by nearly a decade of turmoil.
Until 2004, the SSP had successfully brought together disparate elements of the Left under a pro-independence and anti-capitalist banner.
The party’s high point was the 2003 Holyrood election, in which it got six MSPs returned and polled 15.2% of the List vote in Glasgow.
However, following ex SSP leader Tommy Sheridan’s decision to sue a tabloid newspaper over allegations relating to his private life, the party split and faded away electorally.
It won 0.42% of the vote at the last Scottish Parliament election, while Sheridan’s Solidarity party polled 0.14%.
Neither party contested the recent European election.
Despite the lack of electoral success north of the border recently, the referendum campaign has given the broader Left a shot in the arm.
The wider Yes campaign is dominated by left-wing groups and individuals, including RIC, the Jimmy Reid Foundation, the SSP and the Greens.
Other than the Greens, which has two MSPs, no electoral vehicle exists to bring all the groups together.
The informal talks - involving key players in a variety of organisations - have centred around creating a new Left party or umbrella group.
The discussions are at the exploratory stage and are likely to be stepped up after September 18th.
A red line for many of those involved is that Sheridan, who is seen as a divisive figure, plays no part in any new group.
Another obstacle is that the RIC contains individuals previously involved with the Socialist Workers Party, an outfit mistrusted by the SSP.
Gregor Gall, a professor of industrial relations at Bradford University and an expert on the Scottish Left, said the idea was good in principle:
“For the future of the radical left in Scotland, there is no doubt that a new, fresh and broader party is essential if this radical left is not only to get back to its former zenith of 2003 but also go beyond this.
“Although parliamentary politics and representation are not the be all and end all to the radical left, it will never get anywhere fast unless it can construct a new vehicle that is capable of getting MSPs.”
Cat Boyd, an activist with the RIC, said: “The referendum campaign has opened up a space for left wing and socialist ideas to come to the fore in Scottish politics again. We are seeing a rebirth of progressive left wing ideals as people look for an alternative to the austerity agenda. The RIC has shown the left works best when we stand together and I hope that lesson will allow us to move past old divisions and open up the path for a new electable left with new leadership.’
Colin Fox, the SSP co-convener, confirmed “informal” discussions had taken place but restated his commitment to the SSP.
He added that any umbrella group would have to have a clear ideological underpinning, with a focus on the working class.
Robin McAlpine, the director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation, said the creation of a new vehicle would depend on whether the SNP and Labour left open the space for such a new entity.
He said: “Lots of people on the Left are talking about post-referendum configurations. Conversations are happening everywhere. If the SNP’s social democracy is shallow, there will be competition.”

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Labour movement

It’s an open secret that relations between Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont and her deputy, Anas Sarwar, have taken a dip recently.
The Sunday Herald revealed that MP Sarwar had been sidelined from his party’s referendum campaign; instead, he was put in charge of the Labour battlebus.
The wider issue is who will lead Labour into the 2016 Holyrood election, regardless of the referendum result.
MPs and MSPs are gossiping about whether Lamont, who was never uber-keen on becoming leader in the first place – will be in post long-term.
Speaking to the Sunday Post at the weekend, Sarwar was asked whether Lamont would be in charge for the next Scottish Parliament poll.
His quoted reply: “Johann Lamont is leader of the Scottish Labour Party.”
Let’s assume Labour is thinking about a post-Johann world. Which individuals are being tipped internally as potential leadership material?


1.    Anas Sarwar. Lamont’s ambitious deputy is believed to see his future at Holyrood, not Westminster. He’s deemed to be a talented networker – watch him schmooze those Labour activists on the battlebus tour - but his detractors say he has lacks substance. His son’s attendance at a private school is another ‘issue’.
Sarwar may also find that the logistics of getting to Holyrood are problematic. Although Scottish Labour delayed its List rankings until 2015 – a decision some party insiders said was to aid MPs – Sarwar would have to take his place behind existing List members whose rankings are protected.
His best hope would be if an occupant of one of Labour’s first-past-the-post seats generously made way.

2.    Jim Murphy. Demoted in Ed Miliband’s last reshuffle, the Blairite East Renfrewshire MP may now see more of a future in Scottish politics. As with Anas’ bus tour, Murphy’s ‘100 towns in 100 days’ jaunt is an ideal way to acquaint himself with Scottish Labour members.
However, he is not close to Lamont and her team, whose troops believe Murphy is vain and out solely for numero uno. Don’t expect Lamont to make any decisions that would help Scottish Labour’s leading moderniser.
In common with Sarwar, Murphy’s path to Holyrood looks complicated. He too would  have to depend on a lucky retiral.

3.    Kez Dugdale. One of  the brightest of the 2011 intake. The Lothians MSP is good on TV, presentable and not as rabid as some of her colleagues when dealing with the SNP. For instance, she was in favour of the Labour-SNP coalition in Edinburgh council.
However, the Blairite tag may be unhelpful. She is involved with Movement for Change, which David Miliband founded.

4.    Drew Smith. Labour’s two biggest trade union affiliates  - Unite and Unison – are fans of the Glasgow MSP, which is enough to make him a contender.
Bear in mind that Ed Miliband’s one-member-one-vote reforms for the UK party do not apply for the Scottish post. Up here, Tony Benn’s bizarre electoral college, which gives 1/3 of the votes to the affiliates, still holds. The status quo favours the candidate with strong trade union support. However, senior insiders believe Smith is too much of a student Lefty to be taken seriously.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Family matters, part two

I wrote a piece for today's Herald about Presiding Officer Tricia Marwick, who has decided to play no role in a review of the Parliament's ban on MSPs employing their relatives. This is because she currently employs her son.

 Here is an extended version of the article.

By Paul Hutcheon

HOLYROOD’s presiding officer is to absent herself from a review of the ban on MSPs employing their relatives over a potential conflict of interest.
Tricia Marwick will play no part in the exercise due to her employing her son Steven as a constituency assistant.
In response to public concern, MSPs voted in 2010 to stop themselves hiring close family members at taxpayers’ expense.
The curb applied to new hires and also meant existing employees would have to find alternative employment by mid-2015.
This date was chosen as it fell months after the Parliament election was scheduled to take place.
However, the date of the Parliament poll has since been put back a year.
As revealed by the Herald, Holyrood’s governing corporate body is now “likely” to revisit the timing of the family ban in light of the election decision.
Supporters of a change believe waiting until after 2016 will result in a fall in the number of MSPS who employ relatives, and reduce the chance of a legal challenge.
However, senior Holyrood figures fear a review could lead to the reversal of the ban in its entirety, as Westminster still allows MPs to employ one family member.
When a possible review was discussed at the corporate body earlier this month, Marwick, who chairs the body, excused herself from the discussion.
She will also absent herself when the matter comes back to the corporate body later this year.
According to the latest parliamentary register, Steven Marwick is listed as having worked part-time for his mother for a period until April 2009, and full-time thereafter.
Twelve MSPs are listed as employing a close family member, including the SNP’s Stewart Maxwell, whose wife is registered as a part-time researcher, and Labour MSP Michael McMahon, whose spouse is a parliamentary assistant.
 John Wilson, an SNP MSP, said:
“I welcome the Presiding Officer’s decision to absent herself from any deliberations on this matter, which followed a review by Sir Neil McIntosh.
“However, I trust that the consideration of this issue will take on board the strength of public feeling on the matter of MSPs employing their relatives.”
A Scottish Parliament spokesman said:
“At last week’s SPCB meeting, the Presiding Officer absented herself from a brief, informal discussion on the employment of family members. 
“The Presiding Officer will again absent herself from any future discussions or decisions on the matter.”

Monday, 9 June 2014

A high energy return

GORDON Brown’s speech last week at the launch of the United With Labour campaign in Glasgow contained few surprises.
The former Prime Minister attacked nationalism, provided his usual historical sweep of what he regarded as Labour achievements in government, and said the key benefit of the UK was its ability to “pool and share” resources.
Brown also attacked the SNP from the Left by claiming the Nationalists did not back many current Labour policies.
Warming to his theme, he said the SNP did not support a tax on bankers' bonuses, extra council bands for the most expensive properties, or the restoration of the 50p rate of income tax.
However, as part of his his pitch about the SNP not supporting Labour policies, he said:

“They won’t do a windfall tax on the energy companies.”

This is true. The SNP has not endorsed a tax on the excess profits of the Big Six, but nor has Labour.
Ed Miliband’s policy is to impose a gas and electricity price freeze for the first twenty months of a Labour Government, but no futher.
It seems odd for Brown to attack the SNP for not backing a policy his own party has yet to embrace.
But maybe that is the point. Chuka Umunna, Labour’s shadow business secretary, said of a windfall tax last year:

"These are all things that are being looked at in the context of Labour's policy review and I'm not in a position to make announcements on that right now.”

Brown's comments can be read two ways: either he believes a windfall tax on Big Six profits is a good idea; or he has inadvertently confirmed what Labour is considering for its 2015 general election manifesto.
The price freeze delivered Miliband’s best moment as leader. Perhaps Labour is returning to the same ground for a pre-election shot in the arm.