That pesky indyref. Three of Scotland’s four main political parties planned their final party conference in March before the referendum in September, and with the Tories already having had their turn earlier this month in Edinburgh and the Lib Dem conference to come in Aberdeen at the end of the month, now was Labour’s time to shine.
All the evidence over the past few months has suggested that the party still very much sees itself as ‘Scotland’s party’, a claim enhanced with some credibility by a self-confessed socialist in Johann Lamont as leader. However, Labour has been said to have ‘had its clothes stolen’ by the SNP (in an ideological sense), with the nationalists aiming to corner the market in left wing politics and bin the ‘Tartan Tories’ jibes for good. 21-23 March was a golden opportunity for Labour to counter-raid the SNP’s washing line and make a stand; for this conference was about a whole lot more than the referendum.
That rarest of beasts, a sunny Scottish day, where one feels comfortable leaving the house without a scarf and bobble hat on in a bid to outfox Mother Nature, rears its pleasant head as I arrive in Perth for day one of the conference.
First on the agenda is a debate over the Devolution Commission- handily detailed in a glossy brochure sent out to delegates and the press with our conference passes. Johann Lamont sets out Labour’s future plans for devolution in typically combustious style and tells conference that the Scottish parliament must first be strengthened ‘in order to strengthen Scottish politics’, saying that the party believes in a UK which ‘shares equal risk and reward’.
In fairness to Johann, it is virtually impossible to talk about alternative plans to independence without referencing the SNP, but within the first 10 minutes of the Devo Commish debate, a number of core themes which would prevail throughout the next couple of days became immediately obvious:
1) The SNP are unbearably arrogant in thinking that only they have the answers to Scotland’s problems. One size doesn’t fit all.
2) Despite the above criticism of the SNP’s arrogance, it is clear that only Labour have the answer to Scotland’s problems. One size doesn’t fit all.
3) The Separatists don’t have any interest in devolution- only we can get the right deal for Scotland. Did I mention that one size doesn’t fit all?
Afternoon session, and time for a flurry of delegates to reflect on the Devo Commish. Loud delegates, quiet delegates, impassioned delegates, reserved delegates and best of all, a seemingly rather confused chap of advanced years basing his entire speech around the expression ‘people before profit’. Quite a few blood vessels being burst and not a lot of serious debate going on, it’s something of a relief when Margaret Curran steps up.
The Shadow Scotland Secretary makes a strong and persuasive case for the union, having got the obligatory pop culture funny out of the way early doors (Tony Capaldi/Dr Who reference, not bad really, but lacking the comic timing of a Salmond or a Hague). She tells conference: “nationalism is only the answer when you think your problems are only outside your borders,” and urges the party to win the referendum ‘with Labour values’. Most impressively, Curran manages to make a genuinely positive case for the union- that is to say, she makes several points arguing why Scotland should stay in the UK without slagging off the SNP. Few more speeches like that and Scotland will have its mind made up. Can’t see it happening though, somehow.
Then, a spot of high comedy as a young councillor actually manages to elicit an ‘awwwww’ from sections of conference with an anecdote about how a first meeting with her local Labour MP as a child motivated her to make a difference and change the world or something. Leading onto the appearance of The Rt Hon Ed Miliband.
Ed’s speech is remarkably similar to his calamitous response to George Osborne’s budget a few days earlier. Some genuinely good policy ideas for Scotland’s future and ideological brilliance largely lost in a wave of angry idealism, cries of ‘AND THAT’S WHY WE ARE BETTER TOGETHER’ after each point made and some frankly disturbing flappy hand movements. Still, it could have been worse. He could have said ‘one size doesn’t fit all’…
Not an awful lot going on at second day before Johann’s keynote speech in the afternoon, so I’ve time to have a chat with my Backbench colleague Marc Winsland, who is a delegate at conference. He tells me that he feels ‘an enthusiastic buzz and an energetic energy’ and believes that the No camp is winning the indyref battle.
Marc says: “Scots are becoming increasingly critical of Alex Salmond's fairy-tale wishes. It is much better to have UK-wide policies- particularly when tackling issues like youth unemployment. Ed Miliband wants the UK to stay together for personal not political reasons- he is as genuinely committed to Scotland as anyone in Scotland.”
Last year’s Commentator of the Year also fears for the future of the SNP post-referendum and says that he thinks ‘there would be a gradual disintegration of the party’ if Scotland votes No on September 18.
“If the public rejects independence,’ says Marc, ‘they are essentially rejecting what the SNP stands for and I don’t think the SNP could gain a majority after a No vote. Either that or the SNP refuses to accept the will of Scotland and continues to hammer independence down our throats until we agree with it- which I don't think is going to happen.”
I ask my colleague about the leadership of Scottish Labour- is Johann Lamont the right person to lead the party? He presents an argument remarkably similar to the one for preserving the union- the party’s whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
“We have a great leadership team- it's focused on teamwork, not just the leader. Johann Lamont can take our case to Scotland and Anas Sarwar is a highly capable deputy leader.”
Onto Johann’s speech then, and everyone in attendance knows what to expect from the Scottish Labour leader. Praised yesterday by Ed as ‘tough and determined’, social justice is a key theme once again from Lamont and Scotland needs to reclaim it, she says. It would appear that social justice is not the only thing that the party needs to reclaim however.
Lamont tells conference that she will ‘rip from the nationalists the threadbare garments they dress in to appear to believe in equality’. Not exactly a catchy line, but it does the trick- as do the 26 mentions of the word ‘nationalists’ in her speech and the accusation that the Yes campaign ‘are running the most dishonest, deceptive and deceitful campaign this country has ever seen’. An emotively delivered and ideologically motivated speech, but not exactly One Nation Labour and greatly undermined by the incessant focus on the SNP.
A less than brilliant turnout for the final day of conference and not an awful lot going on, in all honesty. Anas Sarwar’s worthy attempt to undermine all previous attempts by delegates to argue that the SNP use divisive rhetoric and Labour are a uniting force in Scottish politics (“It’s Salmond versus Scotland”) about as exciting as it gets.
Whilst Johann Lamont deserves credit for the ingenuity and variety in her attempts to get under nationalist skins- the reference to the Scottish government as ‘Osborne Max’ being a personal highlight- this was also the fatal flaw of the conference: both for her, and for her party. This conference was a huge opportunity for Johann Lamont and Labour to prove the SNP entirely wrong and show that there is a positive case, both for the union, and for a Labour government in Scotland. There were glimpses of promise, but ultimately, this opportunity was one that Scottish Labour let pass it by, instead choosing to focus on taking pot shots at the SNP. That wouldn’t have mattered, had a clear alternative been pushed by the party, but that was seldom the case. As for that pesky referendum? Toss a coin.
By Alex Shilling