Friday, August 24, 2007

Wendy Wind Blows

So, as Labour welcomes its fourth Holyrood leader, we bid farewell to Jack and extend a warm welcome to Wendy. There's no doubt that she will present a different set of challenges to the SNP than did her predecessor. However, with the SNP now setting the agenda from the Holyrood Ministerial Tower, it's also the case that she and her MSP colleagues have some new and awkward terrain of their own to negotiate.

This is the first time Labour has been in opposition to anyone other than the Conservatives in Scotland. There's a new dynamic of a Scottish government at work, which doesn't take its lead from London. Consequently, the old Labour trick of playing the Scottish card just isn't going to work any more – after all, as the advert asks, why have cotton when you can have silk?

A psychological rubicon has been crossed. The SNP is in power, and as I've remarked before, no-one has sold their first born son into slavery, the plagues of boils and locusts have yet to arrive, and the four horsemen of the apocalypse seem curiously absent from the horizon. Even the SNP's sternest doubters have been forced to admit that in government, the party has shown a maturity and sure-footedness with which few would have credited it previously.

In her post-coronation pronouncements, Alexander was quick to spell out to anyone who might have missed it that the SNP had won the election, not by some fluke, but by embracing an agenda of hope and aspiration. To that end, she set out 4 broad headings where she wanted Labour to change: developing Scottish solutions for Scottish aspirations; empowering people and communities rather than institutions; having consumer not producer-focused public services; and delivering a competitive yet compassionate economy.

In our post-ideological age there's probably not much there from which anyone would demur. Labour can lay claim to all the intellectual conceits it wishes, but for many Scots, if there was a stifling political 'consensus', Labour and its patronage networks were the problem. Labour became a byword for a proprietorial, top-down, boring, managerial and oft-times not even particularly competent style of government. As such, the ability of the party to overcome its own hard-wired producer interest is at best highly dubious.

Nevertheless, its a patronage network to which Alexander owes much herself. Hers was a gilded path, with her links to Donald Dewar and Gordon Brown predestining her for a place amongst the elect. All good for her, but it does mean that she missed out on developing some of the more fundamental skills needed by a politician. After all, why waste energy on anything so vulgar as winning people over with persuasion and skill in debate, when you can bludgeon them instead with repeated assertion before letting the party machine do the rest?

As part of the Labour ascendancy, she has formidable support amongst the Scottish chattering classes. Marriage and motherhood have mellowed her, they tell us. Well, perhaps, but the memory lingers of her undermining Henry McLeish, bringing government to a shuddering halt in protest at his attempts to hand her responsibility for Scottish Water as part of her ministerial brief. And who could forget her ludicrous 'Hungry Caterpillar' speech, as John Swinney took on a similar sized portfolio without breaking so much as a bead of perspiration?

It's a series of similar vignettes that have built up the perception of her being somewhat other worldly and near-impossible to work with. This perception is itself put down to her apparently 'formidable' intellect and the inherent misogyny of Scottish society. Again, perhaps. It still doesn't explain how Susan Deacon, who wears her postgraduate learning rather more lightly than does Alexander, managed to be infinitely more effective in office yet never attracted either the same opprobrium or gushing praise.

And that in the end is her biggest problem. If she is seen solely as an abrasive mouthpiece for someone else, will she be able to take her Labour colleagues to where she says she wants to go? How can she rebuild a parliamentary group still suffering from its Stalinist purges of the candidate list back in 1998? And will she be able to engage in the 'more powers' debate without reverting to her default pre-election demonisation of independence and the negativity which turned so many voters away from her party?

Alexander really is Labour's last chance to prevent the SNP from establishing itself as a long-term party of government in Scotland. If she fails, and Labour lose power at Westminster, who seriously expects Scotland to hang around in the union? That's how high the stakes are, and that's why we're going to have it rammed down our throats by Labour supporters in the press and civic society, whether its true or not, that Wendy is the best thing to happen to Scotland since, well, the SNP government.

Unionism might appear to be in disarray right now, but as any hunter knows, the beast is at its most dangerous when wounded and cornered. We've no reason to not be confident at the way matters are progressing, but we should never forget that Alexander has some very powerful allies and is likely to work much more closely with her colleagues in London than did Jack McConnell. For that reason, the SNP would be wise to watch her and hers very carefully as Labour begins to pick itself up from the canvass.


Dougthedug said...

An insight into how Wendy operated in the McLeish years. If she hasn't changed since the article was written then it's a moot point how long she's going to last.

Peter MacMahon 2002

This will be the first time that a Labour MSP group leader in Holyrood has operated without the First Minister position to give them authority.

How much authority she will have in the party without the top government position is something we all have to find out. The position of Labour MSP group leader doesn't appear to even be acknowledged on the "How the Party Works" page of the Labour in Scotland website.

With all her pronouncements on how she's going to change the Labour Party in Scotland I suspect that she still believes that the gravitas and authority that the post of First Minister gave to McLeish and McConnell still somehow applies to her. She may actually believe that she is the leader of the entire Labour party in Scotland rather than Holyrood Parliamentary leader.

Then again, maybe she's just blindly relying on Brown in hope that he will push through any changes in the party structure that she deems necessary.

"...but we should never forget that Alexander has some very powerful allies..."

As you point out, even if she's just a puppet she could still be dangerous if she can articulate and implement the instructions from Brown and the gang.

Don't Vote Labour said...

gonyursel said...

An excellent insight and comment. In the best old Labour tradition she has her political thug minder,in the person of Tom McCabe,at her side.
Let's not forget that it was the ineptness of Alexander who took the issue of Section 28,which was withering on the vine anyway,and turned it into a national crisis which came dangerously close to destroying our parliament at birth.

Anonymous said...

Couldn't have put it better myself!!!

Interesting times indeed..................