The Scottish Labour Party elected a new leader this week - except that it didn’t. The new nominal leader, Wendy Alexander, is only the leader of the Labour group of MSPs in the Scottish Parliament, and she was elected to that position unopposed. Never has Labour’s North Korean predilection for single candidate elections been more self-defeating. It has undermined the new broom even before she has begun to sweep.
Wendy Alexander is a capable and intelligent politician with a lot of support across Scotland in the media and academia. She is also the first woman leader the Scottish party has ever had and the party’s best chance of escaping from its male-dominated West of Scotland political ghetto. But she will have to take on the Labour Party in Scotland if she wants to have any chance of taking on the SNP.
Yesterday she announced that: “I will lead the Scottish Labour Party. I am my own person with my own causes.” She has already contradicted the Scottish Secretary, Des Browne, by saying that she wants to enter the debate - begun by the SNP last week - on new powers for the Scottish parliament. She is letting it be known that she favours further tax powers being devolved to Holyrood including possibly stamp duty and corporation tax. Mr Browne has said there is no need to change the devolution settlement.
Labour MPs have lost no time in failing to support the new leader, just as they failed to support her predecessor, Jack McConnell. Scottish Labour MPs were contemptuous of his attempts to make a positive case for progressive home rule
and blocked moves to make the party more Scottish and autonomous. This was regarded by Westminster MPs and Lords as presumption by a second-rate politician getting above himself. The press was continually reminded that Jack McConnell was not the leader of the party in Scotland, Tony Blair was.
Gordon Brown may look on things rather differently. Wendy Alexander is the sister of his closest confederate, Douglas Alexander, and regarded by some in the party as the more able of the two. Brown understands Scotland and the subtleties of the home rule debate rather better than his predecessor and might well be minded to give Wendy her head. He certainly understands the need to take on Alex Salmond on his own Scottish ground, and dispel the impression that the Labour Party in Scotland is under remote control from London.
But he will have to move quickly. Wendy Alexander needs to be clearly in charge of the party before the Scottish parliament returns in September. The carping from Westminster Labour has to stop and only the firm smack of authority will do that - and no one smacks firmer than Wendy Alexander. Colleagues and civil servants who have disagreed with her in the past have been left smarting after being “Wendied” - a new Scottish political verb which means being subjected to extreme verbal attrition.
Brown should also endorse proposals for a second referendum on the constitution which is being called for ten years after the devolution vote in 1997. With support for independence running at less than thirty percent in the polls, there is a clear opportunity here to resolve the constitutional debate for a generation. But it will mean a new round of constitutional innovation in Holyrood, and a constitutional convention to give them authority. Such a process is now explicit policy of all the main political parties in Scotland, including the Conservatives. The sooner they get together and decide just what kind of parliament they want, the better.