Sunday, February 03, 2008

Put Wendy out of her misery.

Waiting for Godot was never as bad as this. Politicians and press are growing irritable and restless at the endless wait for the Electoral Commission to rule on the illegal donation to Labour leader Wendy Alexander’s campaign fund. Two months! What on earth are they doing? Distraught hacks have been wandering the lobbies tearing their hair in frustration.

Scottish politics needs to move on, but can’t until this issue is resolved. No one knows whether Wendy Alexander’s leadership is viable and she is becoming increasingly accident-prone. In such a climate almost anything can turn into a political crisis - such as the confusion last week about declaring campaign donations on the Scottish parliament’s register.

The parliamentary standards commissioner instructed the Labour leader to register her campaign donations - the money raised for the leadership election that never happened. Labour had believed that, so long as they kept the donations under £1,000 ,they would be allowed to keep the names secret. Commissioner Jim Dyer said no, and so last week Wendy had to deliver names and pack drill.

Not that these would have come as any surprise to readers of this paper since they had been published here first. However, the episode drew attention, once again, to the manner in which the Alexander campaign sought to get round the spirit, if not the letter of the law on donations by getting benefactors like property developer Michael D Rutterford to donate £999 pounds, just under the £1,000 threshold of public scrutiny. It just looks so devious.

We knew of course that Ms Alexander had “unintentionally” accepted £950 from Paul Green, a tax-exile property developer who was not entitled to make a donation to a British political party. That was why the Electoral Commission was brought in all those weeks ago. But why did Labour not want people to know that Neil Davidson, the Advocate General for Scotland, had donated to them? Or the former deputy chairman of SEPA, Nicholas Kuenssberg? It’s a mystery only they can explain.

But shadow cabinet ministers are being kept on a very tight rein. Last week, a cringe-making Labour “crib sheet” was leaked to the press revealing what their leader expected them to say to journalists in a defensive ring-around: “I’m phoning because the whole of the Labour shadow cabinet is united behind Wendy’s leadership and is fed up reading otherwise in the papers”. Or so it says here.

We know that Labour front benchers have been bereft since they lost their civil service briefs, but this is ridiculous - turning them into speaking clocks. It was counterproductive too, since the co-ordinated lobbying of political hacks just made it look as if Wendy was in more trouble that they were admitting.

Nor did she do herself any favours by attacking other politicians who have run in leadership campaigns. In an attempt to deflect public criticism over the Dyer ruling, team Wendy challenged senior figures in other parties by name to publish details of their own campaign spending. This aroused the wrath of MSPs like the SNP’s Christine Grahame, and the Tory leader Annabel Goldie, who insisted that they had not raised any cash for campaigns, and had relied on their own pockets.

Labour’s intention was presumably to hint that these candidates might have misused their parliamentary and other allowances for party political purposes, and to invite the press to start taking a look at their accounts. At a time when all politicians are under unprecedented scrutiny, this was taken very badly. MSPs may knock lumps out of each other at question time, but Scottish politicians are all members of the same club, and they don’t like it when someone transgresses the unwritten rules.

There had been a degree of sympathy building up for Wendy Alexander - dead woman walking - as she awaits the Electoral Godot. But much of that has now evaporated. She has ensured that when the Electoral Commission does get round to ruling on her case, she will attract maximum hostility. Wendy is now being seen as a liability, not just to Labour, but to Scottish politics as a whole. Time to put her out of her misery.


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