Is Labour planning to bypass the Holyrood chamber as the referendum approaches?

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By G.A.Ponsonby

It’s the race with no runners and no commentary.  A contest nobody wants to win, to lead a party that doesn’t exist.

The response to the pending departure of Iain Gray as leader of Labour’s Holyrood group has mirrored the man’s performance since he took over from the unfortunate Wendy Alexander – lacklustre.

The silence is deafening, particularly from the Scottish media who seem to have decided that the shambolic state of the once dominant force of Scottish politics is not newsworthy.  Similarly there has been scant mention of the so called inquest into Labour’s demise in Scotland as evidenced by the result of last Holyrood elections.

It isn’t surprising of course.  It’s not much of a secret any more but the Scottish media do not do Labour ‘crisis’ stories.  Vote down a key budget, have your leader-in-waiting flee the country after abusing cocaine or start a diplomatic row after insulting foreign countries and Scotland’s newspapers and broadcasters will look the other way for Labour.

The role played by Labour in Scotland’s longest running soap opera, the Edinburgh trams, is the latest in a series of mishaps that ought to by now had our newspapers screaming about the car crash that Labour has now become.

As they say in the movies – it’s quiet … too quiet.

But it’s Labour’s Scottish leader vacuum that’s the interesting and intriguing aspect in this silent disintegration.  We are led to believe that nobody wants the job.  There’s even a story today informing us that Labour insiders believe MSP Jackie Bailie’s private education background makes her unsuitable, signs perhaps that the party are even ensuring no Holyrood candidates by briefing against their own MSPs.

If signals from Labour’s London Scots are to be believed then the role is going to go to a Westminster based MP and not an MSP.  This throws up the very obvious question; Who will Labour nominate from the ranks of Holyrood backbenchers to have a weekly joust with Alex Salmond?

Someone has to ask the First Minister questions each week if for no other reason than to give the impression of a coherent opposition.  Labour in Scotland will suddenly have two ‘leaders’; the Holyrood group leader and the Westminster based leader.  On the face of it this looks like a problem, two ‘leaders’ covering the same patch will surely result in arguments as each strives for power.

The reality though is that Labour’s Holyrood leader will be no such thing, Iain Gray’s successor will have even less power and authority than that wielded by Gray.  If, as expected, the leader role does indeed go to an MP then the Holyrood group leader will have no more status than that of a local authority leader in any part of the UK.

In this scenario what does Labour gain?

To answer this we have to look at how the Scottish media operate and in particular how the BBC operates in Scotland.

In three years’ time we will have a referendum on Scottish independence, the Union is under threat.  The party of Union in Scotland is not the Conservatives, it isn’t the Lib Dems – the party who keep Scotland glued to Westminster is Labour.  A strong pro-Union campaign requires a strong Labour voice and this voice is not to be heard within the confines of Holyrood.

The independence debate has already begun and the Unionists are lagging.  Both sides were caught out by the extent of the SNP’s win in May, it was as unexpected as it was historic.  But the SNP appear to have come to terms with the reality of the situation faster than their opponents and have capitalised on their rival’s disarray with some fleet-footed initiatives, including the request for Crown Estates, corporation tax and borrowing powers to be devolved.

Events have also played into the hands of the nationalists with the row over the UK Supreme court and the English riots bringing Scotland’s separate identity into sharper focus.

Momentum is with the SNP and as the referendum on Scottish independence moves ever closer the fate of a powerless group of Labour MSPs in Holyrood is probably not a high priority.  The internal inquiry currently being headed by Jim Murphy thus takes on a whole new meaning as does the media silence – and no, the rustling of the bushes by Tom Harris does not count.

To understand what might be going on we have to understand the Scottish media or to be more precise the BBC.  To promote a message, any message, requires the state broadcaster to play ball.  There must also be a figurehead promoting that message, someone who can pull the argument together and who is capable of taking on the head of the independence movement, Alex Salmond.

The figurehead therefore needs to be a recognised big beast, an MP of the calibre of someone like Jim Murphy.  Murphy also understands the Scottish media from his Secretary of Scotland days and he knows they will play ball.

If this is indeed the strategy, the implementation is not as clear cut – how to persuade the BBC to provide a regular Scottish platform to Mr Murphy in order to allow him to counter the exposure afforded the First Minister?

The BBC you see provides a regular platform only to those with status.  Michael Moore and his colleague Willie Rennie would have remained nondescript Lib Dem politicians but for the exposure they now enjoy as a result of their newly acquired respective status of Secretary of State for Scotland and leader of the Holyrood Lib Dems.  Murphy is just an MP, he is allowed on air to speak on UK defence issues by dint of his shadow defence role, but that’s it – he has no real status.

By granting a Scottish Labour MP the title of ‘Scottish Labour Leader’ Murphy is granted status, the Labour party cleverly construct a door straight into the Pacific Quay studios and Murphy doesn’t need to relinquish his Westminster seat.  A Scottish Labour leader is also granted access to the BBC Scotland broadcasting privileges usually reserved for those who achieve high office or lead their respective parties at Holyrood.

At a stroke a Westminster based Labour MP is free to issue statements and press releases at will on devolved matters, always of course condemning the SNP and independence, and have these statements broadcast.  If these attacks can conflate the SNP with the Tory cuts at Westminster all the better

Far fetched?

Well, if the Unionist campaign doesn’t have a senior elected Labour figure at its helm then that job will fall to a Lib Dem or a Tory.

Does anyone really believe that Murdo Fraser or Willie Rennie are capable of driving an anti-independence campaign?  Or that David Mundell, Michael Moore or Danny Alexander can carry out the role?

For those who question whether BBC Scotland would suddenly ‘recognise’ an invented Labour title of ‘Scottish Leader’ one need only watch the coverage of the Edinburgh trams fiasco where Pacific Quay stubbornly refuses to highlight the fact that the latest shambles was proposed by the Labour group, the presentation of the story by the BBC has bordered on misrepresentation by ommission.

After their manipulation of the trams story and their equally shocking presentation of the tuition fees story, there is now little doubt that BBC Scotland will do all it can in order to protect Labour and undermine the SNP – the corporation is after all controlled by London and BBC Scotland will readily fall into line.

The referendum is far too important for any real Scottish Labour entity to be allowed to influence so it will be neutered; this particular campaign will be run by London for London.  Labour’s internal review is more likely aimed at marginalising the Holyrood Labour group even further than any thought of granting them more power.

Labour will thus abandon Holyrood and use as their ‘debating chamber’ the studios of Pacific Quay.