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Out of the loop - into the noose

Brian Taylor | 11:04 UK time, Monday, 4 August 2008

Out of the loop. Thus John Robertson MP describing his Holyrood Labour comrade Tom McCabe on Good Morning Scotland.

It is, I suppose, the quintessential political put-down. By definition, political aspirants customarily want to be inside the tent, avoiding the mud with the rather distinctive aroma on the outside.

Snag is that, on this occasion, Tom McCabe suspects that the loop in question is actually a noose.

Mr McCabe, formerly a Scottish cabinet minister, wants much greater autonomy for the Labour Party in Scotland.

In particular, Mr McCabe wants the new leader to be truly the boss of Labour across Scotland, not just at Holyrood.

That, he believes, would allow that new Labour leader to fight on a more equitable basis with Alex Salmond who, self-evidently, doesn't have to look over his shoulder towards London before taking decisions.

Tom McCabe has form on this issue. When he ran Wendy Alexander's leadership campaign, he was pressing very hard internally for exactly these changes.

Loop externalist

For example, he wanted little short of a revolution in party organisation, bringing the Glasgow HQ directly under the Scottish leader.

Since those days - and his admission that Team Alexander broke the law over campaign donations - he has indeed somewhat excised himself from the loop.

He has yet to endorse a candidate to replace Ms Alexander. He has, mostly, worked away quietly at Holyrood and in his constituency.

His views, however, deserve consideration. It is not good enough to depict him as a loop externalist. There remains, as I have pointed out endlessly, a fundamental contradiction at the core of this current leadership contest.

To reprise, it is is. Strictly, the post is "leader of Labour in the Scottish Parliament". That formula is designed to appease MPs who have resented Holyrood's place in the political sunlight.

However, if that truly is the job, then what role do the MPs have in electing such an individual? Surely, that is simply a job for the Holyrood group - to elect their group leader?

If the franchise is wider - as it is - then the job must be wider.

Westminster discontent

To Plan McCabe, then. While applauding him loudly for raising the issue, I have a few problems with his analysis, as it stands.

Firstly, the examples he cites. He mentions Westminster disquiet over the smoking ban. But that got through. It was enacted. Westminster discontent was completely and utterly ignored.

Further, he says the Scottish party must be free to determine policy. That is, indeed, a quintessential of political devolution - and Labour remains perhaps the least devolved of any of the parties.

But the example he uses is the council tax. He says Scottish Labour must be able to set a timetable for its abolition, to match the SNP offer. Yet he is unable to come up with an alternative - and dislikes the SNP plan of a nationally-set local income tax.

It does not strike me as particularly wise politics, whether at Holyrood or Westminster, to condemn an existing system to extinction without having an alternative in place: especially in the field of taxation.

Secondly, that notion of matching Alex Salmond in Scottishness. As successive Labour leaders have found, that is a chimera.

Again, by definition, an SNP leader can always trump a Labour leader on Scottish patriotism. That is because an SNP leader stands ineluctably for Scotland alone - while a Labour leader, supporting the Union, must consider the UK dimension.

I suspect, however, that Tom McCabe is instead talking about extending the writ and remit of the Scottish post in order to match more closely the Scottish dimension.

Beyond wit

I suspect he has pitched for the maximum, expecting a compromise.

Thirdly, party organisation. Labour MPs will not readily surrender control of the party machine in Scotland - and for a good reason. It gets them elected - or not, as in the recent example.

Resources are finite. MPs will not easily trust a system where the direction of those resources - which seats to target, for example - are under the control of a leader from a different parliament whose job is not directly dependent on the decisions taken with regard to Westminster.

Of course, the current set-up is imbalanced too. Labour has only limited internal devolution - and MPs won't even trust Holyrood to take overall charge of its own public elections.

Perhaps it isn't beyond the wit of man or woman to devise a scheme where power is devolved and shared. The Liberal Democrats, for example, have an MSP as leader and an MP as deputy.

But then such compromise will be hard to achieve in an atmosphere of mutual misunderstanding and suspicion: an atmosphere that has persisted within Labour since the very advent of devolution.

Outside the loop, indeed.

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