Labour’s tramsformation

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by Paul Kavanagh

It was revealed by Sunday’s Observer newspaper that Labour has secretly been planning a campaign which will allow it to wrest back control of the political agenda and will see wee Ed Miliband sweep into power come the next Westminster general election. 

The great idea?  Embark on a campaign to tell voters that David Cameron is a Tory.

No really.  That’s the great idea.  As great ideas go it’s possibly not quite up there with the invention of the lightbulb, or even the invention of the nasal hair trimmer.  It’s more in the same league as a sunscreen lotion to protect you from a 10 megatonne nuclear explosion or “I know!  Let’s build a tram line in Edinburgh!”  

Great ideas like these are all par for the tram route if you’re the Labour party, but there’s a safety device in place should the plan hit the buffers, allowing the party passengers to disembark unscathed.  You just make sure that your pals in the media never mention your role in the debacle ever again.  The politician has “moved on”, very much unlike an Edinburgh tram.

Iain Gray was instrumental in bringing about the tram project.  He was Minister for Transport in the Scottish Executive in 2003, back when it was still too feart to call itself a Government in case Tony Blair and Gordie Broon got upset.  It was the bold Iain who introduced the plan to the Parlie, committing hunners o squintillions of our dosh to the idea and giving transport consultancy businesses and manufacturers of bespoke hand crafted tram lines all their Christmasses at once.

The trams project started out as an ego trip for Iain, surprising news to those of us who didn’t realise he had a personality, never mind an ego.  The plan was rammed through the Parliament in 2007, after Labour lost the previous election, in order to screw the budget plans of the new minority SNP administration in a big two fingers to Alex Salmond.  Pesky considerations like finance were not going to stand in the way.  It was going to be Iain’s great legacy project to Scotland, which is exactly what it has turned out to be.  

It started out as a comprehensive and multifaceted plan, whose ambitions were gradually scaled further and further back as costs ballooned like a Glasgow Labour cooncillor.  Things got even worse as a small minority made a huge amount of money at public expense, disruption and inconvenience mounted, public confidence plummeted, and resignations were demanded.  There were spats, there were fights, there were tears before bedtime.  Eventually it was reduced to a tiny shadow of its former self fighting for survival against a tide of public oppobrium.  So much for the Labour party in Scotland, and the trams didn’t turn out too well either.

But I digress, somewhat like an Edinburgh tram route.  

There are unfortunately just two teensy drawbacks to Labour’s great “David Cameron is a Tory, no really” fightback plan.  The first being that we already know that David Cameron is a Tory, what with him being an Eton boy and leading the Tory party and everything.  These things are usually considered clues to those of us who pay attention to such things, which is just about anyone who’s ever voted and anyone who’s ever seen an episode of Upstairs Downstairs.  We don’t need Labour to paint David Cameron as a true blue Tory.  And some guy in Glasgow painted Nick Clegg blue the other day, so that one’s sorted as well.

The second drawback is somewhat more of a problem.  And that’s the problem that the Labour party is itself more than a teensy bit Tory.  We had that whole 13 year long Tone and Gord private toll road show, with its privatisations by the back door, throwing money at bankers, illegal wars, getting into bed with the Murdochs, increasing divisions between the wealthiest and the poorest, and the Labour party being intensely relaxed about Labour party figures getting filthy rich.  But Ed wants us to know they’ve moved on from that.  Ed’s got a plan for a tram.   

In yet another demonstration that Labour doesn’t do irony, the great new top secret fightback plan to spread the message that filthy rich Tories are hateful was authored by Shaun Woodward.  Shaun should know just how much people hate filthy rich Tories, being a property developer with a large personal fortune, a butler, and a wife who’s even more wealthy in her own right.  He was elected in 1997 as a Conservative MP, but joined Labour in 1999 and was parachuted into a safe seat.  In a nice wee twist of evil Tory villain moustachery, between 2004 and 2008 he claimed almost £100,000 of MP’s expenses to help pay the mortgage on his seventh home.  Shaun feels intensely relaxed in the Labour party.

But Shaun’s great plan is Labour talking to itself south of the border.  North of the border no one is talking at all, in case opening their mouth means someone fingers them as a potential Holyrood leader.  Candidates for the post are more elusive than members of the Nick Clegg appreciation society at a student rally.  Yeti expeditions have had more success than Labour’s attempt to find a candidate.  Since Labour’s last leadership was shambling, inarticulate, out of touch, and mostly abominable, perhaps a Yeti may be a better bet.

Trappist monks with laryngitis have been known to have more heated conversations than Labour’s debate about its Scottish leadership.  In the normal universe Labour politicians, like any politician, fall over themselves to get a soundbite on the news.  Jedward are rank amateurs compared to a politician in search of media exposure.  But on this issue there’s not a word.  Despite the excuse that they’re waiting for big Uncle Westminster in the shape of Jim Murphy’s review to sort out their procedural and internal party issues for them, politicians are like ferrets in a sack when it comes to fighting for their own clique’s advantage.  The silence on this issue speaks volumes.

It got so bad that Tom Harris MP was forced to announced on Newsnicht that he’d stand himself even though he wasn’t eligible under current rules and was his own third choice.  He confessed to Gordon Brewer that he wasn’t entirely clear what the rules were, and wasn’t sure when Iain Gray was going to step down and create the vacancy.  No one in the Labour party has the foggiest notion of what’s going on in the Labour party, which is a bit of a worry as these people think they can govern the country.

The response from Labour to Tom Harris’s ‘sort of … maybe … perhaps … oh go on then’ candidacy has been a resounding: “Hi, I’m not at my phone at the moment, please leave a message after the tram crash.”  In a further illustration of how Tory and Labour are differentiated by the thickness of a single ply sheet of bog paper, the only people who’ve come out to support Tom’s candidacy are the Conservative MP Louise Mensch and Scotland’s very own pet Tory David Mundell, the Paddington Bear of politics, who arrived in the Westminster Tory ranks lost and alone from darkest Peebles with a label saying Please Take Care of This Tory attached to his duffle coat.   

Labour inherited a party with a glorious tradition and a commitment to social justice, and Tony, Gordon, Ed, Wendy, Iain and the rest of them trashed it, ably aided and abetted by the likes of Steven Purcell and Jim Devine.  As long as Scotland delivered the bench fodder for Westminster, the London party was content to see a Scottish branch operation that ran on patronage, privilege and preferment, where connections and not ability were the key to advancement.

Labour moved on from its basis in local communities, and instead established itself in its seemingly impregnable hold over the levers of power in Scotland, and the sticks and carrots that power allowed them to wield.  But it was all based on the smoke and mirrors of Westminster’s First Past the Post voting system.  Once that cracked, Labour was as doomed as an Edinburgh tram.

Labour is broken and it’s the people who broke it who claim they can fix it.  Fix being the operative word.  But it’s gone beyond fixes.  Westminster Labour can no more sort out the Scottish party than the Murdochs could sort out the problems at the News of the World.  The Westminster party is the problem, not the cure.

Labour in Scotland needs to declare UDI from Labour at Westminster because the Labour party in Scotland will not be electable again until they can demonstrate to the Scottish electorate that they can protect Scotland from the villainous Tories.  Tories like those found in the British Labour party.  The Scottish party needs to take its future into its own hands, and become a Scottish party.  But there’s as much chance of that happening as there is of an Edinburgh tram expedition to discover the Yeti.

We’re told the party is grieving, still shell shocked by the scale of the kicking it got in May.  Labour politicians had moved on from their inept protection of Scotland during the Thatcher regime and expected that we’d all forgotten the feeble fifty too.  There was no plan B.  There was no plan A either, just the lazy assumption that the Tory bogeyman would make Scotland run into their arms and we’d happily vote Labour with their Tory blue paint in a red tin.  In response to magnitude of their screw ups, Labour has become as tight lipped as a News International executive.  It’s not grief, it’s guilt.   It’s the Silence of the Trams.