Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Clear the runway, here comes "Bomber" Harris

Good on Tom Harris MP for enlivening the Scottish Labour leadership debate, such as it is, by indicating that he will throw his hat into the ring.

With the Scottish party moribund,and the leadership looking as it might go be default to Joann Lamont MSP, Harris is stirring the pot again.

But quite a few things would have to happen for a Harris candidacy to get onto the runway. Almost all of them depend on Jim Murphy, who is currently conducting a review of the party with the consequence that he is being boxed into answering the question of whether he'll sort out Labour's Scottish problems

Firstly the review of the party structure has to make the leadership post is for leader of the Scottish Labour party, not just the group of Scottish Labour MSPs. Otherwise Harris, Murphy or anyone else with MP after their name just couldn't stand. That one move would logically lead to the Scottish Labour party defining itself as a separate entity from the UK party with all that (positively) entails (Another blog, another time).

Secondly the review, or later the party, would have to find a mechanism for MPs to move easily from Westminster to Holyrood.

The next Westminster elections are due in 2015, the next Holyrood elections the following year. It would be a political high wire act for an MP to stand down and wait a year in the hope that the d' Hondt formula or a patient constituency would grant them their wish to go to Holyrood.

From this I would deduct, the dual-mandate politician, serving a transition term in Holyrood and Westminster, is back on the agenda. No harm in it either, as Donald Dewar, Alex Salmond, Henry McLeish and others would testify. As would many continental politicians who transit between regional and national parliaments.

The most crucial human factor that would have to come into play in the Harris gambit is that Jim Murphy, the former Scottish Secretary and Shadow Defence Secretary, does not stand as Scottish leader. Or Douglas Alexander for that matter, the other MP Harris would like to take up the claymore.

Harris's move on the kingship doesn't quite put Murphy into check but it will force him to declare his hand, sooner or later. Murphy is deft though, and Tom's declaration might have just given him the means to decline the offer.

The leadership question might anyway be settled before any major reform of the party gets put in place.

Whoever wins, whoever stands, has to mark themselves out as the leader of a very distinctive Scottish Labour party if they are to escape the SNP's definition of Scottish Labour being "London Labour"(which is itself natspeak for English).

As Salmond proves leaders of devolved parliaments need a streak of independence (small i) for the electorate to back them. The job, in the eyes of the agnostic voter, is to stand against the central power of UK government of whatever hue. Salmond is very aware that he might be overreaching himself by seeking to define the job as dismantling the UK.

Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone before him, show the electoral appeal of being their own man. There are many politically talented male and female Scottish Labour MPs - they won't thank me for naming them - who now find themselves the wrong side of an electoral boundary following the rout by the SNP.

Any of them who thought that Westminster was more important battleground than Edinburgh now has cause to think again.

Referendum, or not, if Labour doesn't re-establish itself as the social democrat vehicle for mainstream Scottish politics then what happened at the Holyrood election could well repeat itself in 2015 UK-wide.

Tom Harris's merits as a candidate are that he speaks the blunt truth about the Labour Party and Scotland. This, of course, also counts against him by the core of Labour membership who decides. He also stuck his neck out against Gordon Brown which for some makes him a brave politician, for others someone to be struck down on sight.

Tom's trouble, and the SNP's delight, is that he challenges Labour othrodoxy. He's centre-right, by that I mean he is more interested in giving a voice to working people who pay taxes to fund social services than he is in defending the recipients of these social benefits. He is not the comfort-zone candidate and defeated parties tend to retreat into the cushions.

But even over the internet, his chosen weapon, Harris delivers a fair payload of incendiaries onto the SNP independence strategy with regular accuracy. On a leadership platform he would give the opposition a good pounding. Against him is that he has bombed his own side fairly often too with his blunt pronouncements.

He's not often accused of being shy but if he really wants to go for the leadership he has to stop being self-effacing. His, I'll do it if Jim Murphy and Douglas don't stand, already has the SNP lampooning him as his own third choice candidate.

If he wants it he should go for it. It would be good if some of the other Labour MPs at Westminster gave him a run for his money.

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