In a television interview on Sunday 4 May Scottish Labour leader Wendy Alexander suggested she was in favour of an early referendum on Scottish independence — “Bring it on!” was the expression she used. Later Alexander said she wanted a referendum during the next twelve months and that Gordon Brown backed her position.
On 7 May Brown said Alexander’s position had been misunderstood — neither he nor Alexander supported an early referendum! The following day Alexander told the Scottish Parliament that she wanted a referendum “now”. By the close of the week Brown and Alexander had issued parallel statements — Alexander’s call had really been part of a cunning plot to expose the SNP: the SNP say they are in favour of independence; Labour demands an immediate referendum on independence; the SNP rejects this; this shows up the SNP as hypocrites.
At the same time Brown’s supporters let the press know that Alexander knew Brown did not support an early referendum. This while Alexander’s supporters are briefing the press that this was another example of Brown’s indecisive leadership, Alexander had gone ahead without Brown’s backing, to force his dithering hand.
The Scottish media have made much of the Alexander-Brown clash and the Scottish Labour against London Labour clash, but this sorry episode serves only to show up how policy — on what is a major issue — is determined in New Labour.
There had been no prior discussion at any level of the Labour Party in Scotland prior to Alexander’s announcement. When the new line was subsequently and quickly abandoned it was the result of phone calls from other individuals in the Labour Party hierarchy.
The fiasco also points to the inability of the Labour Party in Scotland to mount a coherent political challenge to the SNP.
Since it formed a minority Scottish government last summer the SNP has enjoyed growing support. It has introduced free school meals for some age groups, scrapped bridge tolls, reversed earlier decisions to close accident and emergency units, frozen the council tax, and promised to use public funding, not PFIs or PPPs, to build new hospitals.
Labour’s own politics and record in power preclude an attack on the SNP from the left. It can now hardly attack the SNP for not doing what it itself showed no interest in doing.
Despite its populist reforms, the SNP is wedded to promoting the interests of big business, by transforming the Scottish economy into a second ‘Celtic tiger’. But Labour can hardly attack the SNP for being a pro-big-business party. That’s what Labour now — legitimately — claims to be!
But an attack on the SNP from the right would be electorally suicidal.
The result is that Labour’s attacks on the SNP are little more than attempts to “box clever”, exemplified by Alexander’s “immediate referendum” call.
In the event, the outcome was a total fiasco which further undermined Alexander’s already tarnished leadership. And deservedly so.