When I was much younger I was used to Labour losing elections. My first General Elections as a Party member stretched from 1979 to 1992. Each defeat was characterised by an immediate belief on the part of my political circle that the reason for that defeat must be addressed and remedied, as if another election might take place at any moment. The consequence was that, at best, we reached the conclusions that might have won the election just lost rather than would actually win the one four or five years away. At worst, having arrived at our verdict, we abandoned any further monitoring of the developing political situation to concentrate purely on organisation.
In doing so, we also ignored the familiar truism that oppositions don’t win elections, Governments lose them. The two big swing elections of my time, before last Thursday, in 1979 and 1997 were, after the event, attributed by their partisans to the successful challengers. With a greater sense of perspective, what Thatcher and Blair actually did was to position themselves as potential replacements for administrations that had in reality failed internally over their own inability to agree among themselves as to the way forward.
Cameron failed that challenge last year, although with the assistance of Nick, he covered up that failure brilliantly.
In a Scottish context however the starting point of Labour’s post mortem must be a realisation that the landslide had two parents and was not simply the bastard child of a woeful campaign. The SNP administration of the last four years has hardly put a foot wrong. Sure, on occasions, most notably over local income tax, they were saved from themselves; on others, such as the independence referendum, they benefited from the limitations of their mandate and certainly some of the spending commitments they made are probably unsustainable in the long term but judged on their actual period of office .........................what’s there really to get outraged about. Even Megrahi’s release , while controversial, was not controversial in a Party political sense, despite the best efforts of some in our ranks to make it so.
So, the first thing Labour needs to realise is that, unless the SNP cocks up, matters may simply be beyond our control. That’s not to say that they won’t cock up, or that we can’t try and assist them in doing so but in the end they are the Government, they have a number of very talented politicians, both up front and behind the scenes, and, for the moment, they have a remarkable degree of unity.
And the second thing is that the next election in almost any conceivable circumstance will not be for five years. It’s been my lifetime’s ambition to sit in the Scottish Parliament. I’m not going to realise it. In 2016 I will be 57, no age to be starting out on a Parliamentary career. And let’s consider what else will definitely happen in that five year period:
1. There will be a referendum on some subject related to the powers of the Scottish Parliament, although not necessarily it appears on what has always understood to constitute Scottish Independence;
2. that referendum will be won or lost;
3. there will be .(at least) one UK General Election and the outcome will be a Labour Government/a Tory Government/a continued Coalition/a different Coalition;
4. the London Olympics will take place and prove to be an occasion of Metropolitan Folly or a unique British triumph;
5. something will happen in relation to the Royal Family and we’ll end up with a very popular Queen celebrating more and more milestones/a very English eccentric leading even English opinion to turn to republicanism/ or (I fear) an equally popular King Billy, with his “commoner” wife moving towards a Scandinavian type monarchy.;
6. The economy will recover
7. Or it won’t
And these are just things which will definitely happen.
If the death of Osama Bin Laden can derail the last few days of a Scottish election and (let’s not forget) the death of Princess Di halt the No Campaign in its tracks during the 97 Referendum, then who knows what other relatively minor events, let alone major events, might yet dictate the course of Scottish affairs without any Scottish politician having any say over them.
But to return to the issues for the Scottish Labour Party there is also one other certainty. Win or lose, the Labour Group in the Scottish Parliament in five years time will bear little resemblance to either the 2007 or the 2011 Group. Never mind the merits or otherwise of such a development, most of those who lost last Thursday will simply be too old to stand again in 2016. Further, most of those survivors in the Parliament from 1999 will be too old to continue, or at least inclined to continue, particularly if victory is far from assured. Equally, while the farce of our list strategy has undoubtedly provided opportunity for some fresh blood who will be in it for the long term, many of those so appointed are likely to enjoy a very limited period in the sun once the Party turns its attention to their actual merits as public representatives.
So, here’s my first question. Instead of arguing whether Westminster MPs should participate in a privileged position in selecting who should lead us into the next Scottish Election, shouldn’t we in fact be considering whether those who should make that choice are even yet known?
And here’s my second question. Given the other variables, why should we, in 2011, be choosing the person who will be our candidate for First Minister in 2016? Certainly we need a group leader in the Scottish Parliament but if that’s the only position currently on offer under the Party’s constitution, why shouldn’t the selection of that person be left to the Group themselves?
And here’s my third and most difficult question. Perhaps the current group simply does not have someone capable of being a credible candidate for First Minister so why, at this distance should we fetter our choice, or stack up future problems by proceeding in the knowledge that we might need to ditch them at some future point?
So electing a potential candidate for First Minister is the first thing that does not need to be done (now). I will return to some others.