It was a Thursday when I decided that I liked Johann Lamont.
April 2002, to be precise. I remember because I was 16 and “The Hindu Times” was on the radio and I had stopped staring at Vicki Watson and turned my eye to Chris Mahoney.
But my first love was politics. I was a teenager — hormones and hatred — but a socially awkward one. I devoured The Guardian like my contemporaries did MSN and while they taped Marilyn Manson off MTV I recorded First Minister’s Questions to watch every Thursday after school. I was odd.
Scottish politics thrilled me but it left most people cold. We were still cringing at the cost of our parliament, the quality of our MSPs, and the unbearable smallness that Holyrood seemed to exude. Everything was Labour, with its clunking, faceless managerialism and that peculiar Lanarkshire brand of ambition: To make things a little less worse.
A school trip gave me my first glimpse of the Scottish Parliament and my introduction to the outgoing Labour leader. We had been squeezed into the public gallery to observe First Minister’s Questions. As most of my classmates played Snake — in a decade we’ve gone from chasing a line across the LCD screen of a small brick to running our own farms and detective agencies on the nimblest of handheld computers; try telling me that isn’t progress — or nodded off, I was entranced by parliamentary democracy in action.
Then, a backbench MSP, frustrated by the presiding officer’s seemingly capricious approach to the length of members’ questions, decided that she’d had enough.
Johann Lamont, MSP for Pollok, refused to stop speaking, spinning out her question into a lengthy speech. Presiding officer Sir David Steel enjoined her to stop; she rebuffed him. Other MSPs had had their say and she was determined she would too. Only with Sir David’s threat to expel Ms Lamont — which would have made her the first MSP to be ejected from the chamber — was order returned to the proceedings.
She was not a radically different politician from her Labour colleagues but at least she had some chutzpah.
But leadership takes more than moxie and Johann Lamont’s tenure at the top of Scottish Labour was seen as a period of directionless drift and missed opportunities to hold the SNP government to account.
Ms Lamont’s resignation was inevitable given her perceived ineffectuality and the open speculation in recent months about when she would leave and who would replace her.
The mode of her departure, however, was striking. In a candid interview with the Daily Record, she hit out at Westminster “dinosaurs” and insisted that the Scottish party must be given autonomy from the stranglehold of the Westminster machine.
Ms Lamont’s exit, forced out without even the dignity of losing an election, symbolises the decline of Labour in Scottish political life.
Their leader is gone and now pretenders to the throne come forward to pay respectful tribute and jostle for position, the gifts of these would-be heirs mirrored by the modest bounties of the office sought. With every briefing, the curtains are drawn back a little further on this unseemly domestic drama. Betrayal is in the air, as feuds spill over and lifelong friendships, we are told, are soured by grubby power-grabbing.
It is like watching the remnants of a once great mafia family, since muscled out by a more ruthless crime clan, gathering for the funeral of their last and least feared Don.
They believe in Scotland. Scotland has made their political fortune. And they built their party in the Scottish interest, to be the country’s natural party of government. Then Scotland found someone new and left Labour behind. They wept because Scotland was the heart of their political empire — and now it seems like it may never be again.
But the capo di tutti capi, whoever he or she turns out to be, will find themselves the boss of a diminished, even desiccated syndicate. Labour has lost two consecutive Scottish Parliament elections to the SNP. The last time voters entrusted Labour to run the Scottish Government was 2003 and the party holds just 29% of the seats in the Scottish Parliament.
Labour trails the Nationalists in polling for Westminster and Holyrood elections; a recent survey suggested the party’s MP contingent could plummet from 40 to 12 next year. The party has lost ground in its West of Scotland heartlands and saw its power bases like Glasgow and North Lanarkshire vote Yes in the independence referendum. The question is not so much who will lead Scottish Labour but who would want to.
What is to be done? The first order of business will be to choose a new leader but the priority cannot be personalities. The man or woman at the head of the party matters less than what the party stands for. We’re back to the vision thing again.
Labour politicians who came up after the 1980s bear the scars of that lost decade as keenly as the older generation who lived through it. The lesson they took from those years was that Labour should live and fight on the centre ground of British politics. They know Blairism delivered three election victories and forced the Conservatives to change or die. But in Scotland Tony Blair’s legacy, and the New Labour project, can coexist with a programme that allows for the country’s distinctive political character and is responsive to a changing world.
The Scottish centre ground is crowded territory and there is space for a progressive party. The Nationalist Left hopes Nicola Sturgeon will take them to that place and if she can, she would not only complete Alex Salmond’s project to replace Scottish Labour as the natural party of government — she could deprive Labour of its raison d’etre and cast them into a long-term downward spiral.
Here, though, Scottish Labour has an advantage. The SNP speaks social democracy as a second language but the progressive impulse is hardwired into Labour’s consciousness. The party need not shift leftwards, though a more personal, less technocratic tone wouldn’t go amiss. It needs to remember its purpose.
In the 1980s, the US Democrat Party was consigned to three consecutive presidential election defeats by blue collar voters who switched to the Republicans. (Sound familiar?) The nomination of Bill Clinton in 1992 signalled that the party had changed but that change was restorative as well as transformative. The Democrats came back by remembering why their party was in politics in the first place.
This was captured by then Georgia governor Zell Miller who brought the 1992 Democratic national convention to its feet with an evocative recollection of how he had been rescued from his poverty-stricken childhood by the reforms of Democrat presidents.
And then he said this, apropos remarks by Republican George Bush’s vice president:
I know what Dan Quayle means when he says it’s best for children to have two parents. You bet it is. And it would be nice for them to have trust funds, too. We can’t all be born rich and handsome and lucky. And that’s why we have a Democratic Party.
It has gone down as one of the greatest speeches of modern American politics; a party reconnected with its purpose live on national television.
Scottish Labour has to reconnect with its purpose which, at root, is to be the political wing of aspirational Scotland. Labour’s mission is not to make things less worse but to make them much better. It is to be the party that works hard on behalf of those willing to work hard for themselves and to create a fair, inclusive society where everyone feels they have a stake.
To achieve this, Scottish Labour will need the autonomy that Johann Lamont called for in her resignation interview with the Daily Record. It will need the scope to set its own policies and priorities even when these conflict with the strategy of the UK leadership.
Only once the party finds its feet and itself can it go to the mattresses against the SNP. A Labour Party confident of what it believes could effectively frame the Nationalists as ideological mountebanks, pledging corporate tax cuts and Nordic social spending, and always, unceasingly, unrelentingly obsessed with independence.
Historic parties do die — one will search in vain to find the Whigs or the Liberals on the ballot paper today — but they do it slowly and largely by choice. Scottish Labour need not be one of them. As Johann Lamont leaves, she is causing ructions again and refusing the demands of the men in charge that she sit down and shut up, just as she did all those years ago in the debating chamber.
But her purpose is more than bitter bottle-throwing; she is forcing onto the agenda the institutional changes needed to ensure the survival of Scottish Labour. Lamont may have failed as a leader but in the means of her departure she has given her party the opportunity to succeed. That is a worthwhile legacy and a challenge Labour must take up.
Originally published on STV News. Feature image © Jack Donaghy by Creative Commons 2.0.