Commentary by Derek Bateman
Phew! That was close. Twitter was alight with suggestions Labour would pick Kezia and Gordon Matheson – the dream team from Minions, the movie.
You could sense the anticipation across Yes Scotland and the belly laugh that would follow. But, thankfully it was not to be and we ended up with at the very least a sensible combination.
A woman leader is a plus, so is a male deputy. A young leader is a bonus, so is an older and wily compadre. Dugdale probably triumphs largely because of her starting role as deputy and therefore with an incumbency factor and, while she hasn’t lit any fires on the heath yet, she hasn’t burned down the house either.
There is about her the sense of a woman who is still awaiting her true political calling, checking and rejecting positions before she can be accurately labelled. So far she barely qualifies as a pragmatist, more of an Undecided, so she has space in which to adjust her settings according to the prevailing wind which may well blow some serious squalls her way from a Corbyn-era south.
The key to the success here could well be Rowley. Usually deputies dip below the radar and amount to less than the title implies. Quiet Rowley may be, but inactive he ain’t. His analysis of where Labour has gone wrong has the ring of truth – and stark reality and he is a man of principle. He stood down from the shadow cabinet and openly called for Murphy’s head. (And that of the chief of staff McTernan whose goose could now be cooked).
What Dugdale lacks in gravitas and experience Rowley has in bags. He represents a old Labour working class tradition that she cannot match and he slots neatly alongside Neil Findlay in that respect. Labour voters will watch Rowley and recognise in him an authentic voice for their aspirations, more so than Dugdale.
The deeper worry for Labour and for the new leader, is the link he maintains to Gordon Brown, very much his mentor. Brown has a Godfather facility for covert manipulation and will be quietly pleased “his man” sits at the top of the party. This association with a man widely regarded as a dwindling asset who divides opinion is a potential Achilles heel.
The Brown link was blamed by some for Rowley’s sacking as Scottish General Secretary in 1999. Here’s the story from the Independent:
“The Labour Party in Scotland launched a month-long review of its structures yesterday after the dismissal of Alex Rowley, its general secretary.
“The sacking, by the party’s London headquarters, provoked consternation in Scotland, where Labour is sensitive to claims that it is run from England. There were also suggestions Mr Rowley had fallen foul of the continuing battle for power between factions loyal to Tony Blair and those backing the Chancellor, Gordon Brown.”
The new duo has the capacity to reach left and right across the spectrum but this is a base camp job rather than scoping out the route to the summit. Organisation, on-the-ground planning, structures, finance, re-building alliances and creating a coherent party line are the raft on which all party activity stays afloat. Labour has a wealth of none of these.
Rowley’s time in charge of the party, a healthy contempt for Westminster bravado (from bruising encounters with John Reid) and a career in Fife politics, arm him with much of the toolkit required. Labour must hope the ingénue Kezia listens. One of the most striking interventions in the campaign was McIntosh’s promise to stop silly and counter-productive opposition for its own sake and instead build sensible positions to challenge the SNP. They would do well to ponder it. A round-Scotland tour must now be near the top of the to-do list and a serious attempt to listen, not just hear, ordinary members.
Any return to contention has to start somewhere and maybe this will be it. For the sake of grown-up politics, if not the Labour Party, let’s hope so.