The missing ingredient in Scottish Labour: Leadership


By Gerry Hassan – The Scotsman, September 17th 2011

The Scottish Labour Party might be in a terrible place at the moment, but it believes that it is slowly beginning to dig itself out of the mess it is in.

It has started to address the inadequacies of its structures through the Jim Murphy-Sarah Boyack review – which seems so far more cautious, than transformative.

Politics isn’t just about structure, but more tangible issues such as culture, purpose and the issue of leadership. Labour politicians touched on this during and after the election when they lamented that their party did not have a leader who was the calibre of Alex Salmond, or any equivalent of ‘Team Salmond’.

What is missing from Scottish Labour is any sense of public leadership. Leadership is about a number of ingredients – vision, building trust, taking decisions, making things happen, taking people with you, and communicating to colleagues and the public.

A whole host of Labour leaders have struggled with this: Donald Dewar, Henry McLeish and Jack McConnell when Labour was in office, and subsequent leaders in opposition, Wendy Alexander and Iain Gray. Whatever one thinks of all these politicians, each of them had qualities and skills as well as limitations. The wider failures of each to set a strategic course or create a vision has been about more than them personally.

There is a paradox in this. How could a party which ran large parts of Scotland for so long have this lack of leadership? Well, for one thing Labour pre-devolution largely ran Scotland through its control of local government councils and committees along with a myriad, complex network of public bodies. This was in the first, a collegiate kind of leadership, and in both cases, one that was not public, but exercised mostly in private away from the public gaze.

Another group of Labour movers and shakers were the Westminster MPs who were prior to the Scottish Parliament a sort of political class in exile.  They represented Scotland, but were divorced from it, spending most of their time in London only communicating back home via pontificating on TV and radio from College Green.

The exceptions to this tell us something. The major Labour totemic figures of the past who made things happen and changed Scotland – men such as Tom Johnston and Willie Ross – were leaders. In a sense they were the last Labour leaders of Scotland. They gave voice to and represented a powerful mission and purpose, which believed it had a story of Labour Scotand, and which had an optimistic vision of the future. No more could that be said of the party.

Why some things happen in politics and some things don’t is complex and contingent on many variables. Leaders shape events. Labour’s lack of leadership quality under devolution was caused by a variety of factors. One was that Labour morphed into the political establishment of Scotland in the previous 20-30 years, in so doing changing the nature of the party, and sapping it of any sense of energy, dynamism and ideas.

Another was the atrophying of social democracy, of a bigger, bolder purpose which informed and inhabited everything Labour did. A further factor was Labour’s inability to deal with and understand the SNP as a ‘normal’ political party, instead pathologising them as malicious ‘separatists’.

It isn’t surprising, considering this, that all three Labour First Ministers, Donald Dewar, Henry McLeish and Jack McConnell, struggled to find their place. There wasn’t an appropriate set of archetypes, of an idea of what a modern Scottish Labour leader should look like, sound and act. Dewar and McLeish in their short reigns found their authority contested, while McConnell went on the path of least resistance. Alexander in opposition was just too different, buzzing with energy and ideas.

It is fascinating to reflect on all the work that went into the pre-devolution period 1997-99, fine-tuning this and that part of the system and processes.  But Scottish Labour spent next to no time thinking how it could develop a leadership culture, both for the main leaders, and collectively, and what that meant.

I don’t mean by that all the fledgling Labour politicians should have gone away on some McKinsey weekend break on transformative leadership. That’s the New Labour pre-1997 model, which saw then Shadow Cabinet ministers going on Arthur Andersen seminars on preparing for government. That approach ends in government ministers thinking the solution to every problem is to call in the big consultancies: the Blair-Cameron view of politics.

It was actually too late by 1997-99 for Labour, and for the first Scottish Parliament. The only Labour styles of leadership on offer were out of date ones or discredited versions, of the old boy’s network, of fixer politics, or of authoritarian labourism. None of Labour’s First Ministers fitted into that, but neither did they develop a distinct style of leadership. Instead, they flailed about.

Behind them there remained a powerful negative leadership model, the controlling, hectoring, lecturing tones of feeling you have the right to tell people off, captured in Alasdair Gray’s evocative remark about the perils of ‘our own wee hard men (who) hammer Scotland down to the same dull level as themselves’.

All of this has to change if Labour is to have a viable future in Scotland. And not end up like the Tories or the Lib Dems, a small rump reminiscing about the good old days. Scotland needs a credible centre-left alternative. The SNP need it to keep Alex Salmond on his toes.

Scottish Labour has to create a culture which is comfortable with exceptional people emerging, leading, taking risks and making decisions. And then beginning to flesh out a vision and bigger picture.

Much more than Labour’s internal review on structures and what the leader is called or not called, the party needs to become comfortable with the sort of leadership which is appropriate for the modern age. One which is positive, not negative, delegating, not controlling, focused around an individual, but who is part of a team, and who has a generous, ecumenical account of what Scotland is and what it can become.

They have to recognise that times have changed, Scotland is different and Labour too, and that the old battle songs and hymn sheets won’t do any more. It isn’t possible to scare the children at night any more with tales of the Nationalist bogeyman. Instead, they are going to have to reach out and tell a modern Labour story of Scotland. And hope that people will listen and respond


Courtesy of Gerry Hassan –