Sunday, September 14, 2008

Is Iain Gray Labour's Scottish saviour

It’s been called the worst job in the world, and with cause. Since devolution, Labour has had five Scottish leaders. One died prematurely, two others left in disgrace, and the fourth resigned after Labour’s worst election defeat in half a century. Can Iain Gray do any better?

Well, things can only get better - especially his popularity ratings which are barely off the floor. Iain Gray has won the dubious honour of leading Labour MSPs in the Scottish parliament after a leadership election campaign which had very little impact on the Scottish public. His first job will be to tell people who he is.

He will labour under the taint of being “Westminster’s man” but this could equally be a political benefit at least in the short term. The fact that he is trusted in Number Ten and by Labour MPs may make it easier for Iain Gray to make some of the necessary changes to the party’s pitch to Scotland. He has already departed from the Downing St line in criticising the pay limits in the public sector and calling for council tax to be scrapped.

And at least Iain Gray, unlike his predecessors, has been elected after a one-member-one-vote ballot - albeit that some members’ votes counted more than others. That gives him a more rounded democratic mandate. Remember that, under Labour’s constitution, he is only the leader of the Labour’s MSPs; Gordon Brown remains the Labour leader in Scotland. But the fact that Iain Gray has been elected by MPs, activists councillors and trades unionists gives him a degree of additional legitimacy.

Moreover, there is a new mood of realism in the Labour Party, north and south of the Border. In Scotland, Labour now realise they no longer have a God-given right to ruler. In Westminster, Gordon Brown, seems to have come to terms with reality by agreeing further tax powers for the Scottish parliament. Some of the arrogance has gone; the micromanagement of Scottish affairs, and that can only be to the benefit of the new Scottish leader.

So much for the upside; here’s the down. Another crushing UK by-election defeat looms at Glenrothes in a few weeks. Then a possible Holyrood by-election in Motherwell and Wishaw when Jack McConnell finally flits to Malawi to be High Commissioner. However, the damage is likely to be greater to the Prime Minister than the new Scottish Labour leader.

Next up: the council tax hole, time to stop digging. Gray has made clear he isn’t willing to be buried with the council tax and, like the other leadership candidates, made clear he wants it scrapped. But how? And what will replace it? This is a key question which cannot be fudged for much longer.

Don’t expect any surprises, though, from Iain Gray. He is not going to call for any referendums on independence. He is an intelligent man and capable, but in trying to take on Alex Salmond at the height of the FM’s powers Gray has set himself up for the most bruising time of his life.

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