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Friday, 24 October 2014

Johann Lamont to resign as Scottish Labour leader

Alex Salmond shocked the political world when he announced his resignation as First Minister, following a campaign in which the Yes side were generally acknowledged as having exceeded the expectations of many commentators who had failed to foresee how close the result would be.

If the First Minister's resignation surprised observers and stunned many Scots, the departure of his Labour counterpart, Johann Lamont, will be greeted in many circles with a shrug of the shoulders and an acceptance of the inevitable.

Lamont has struggled to provide Scottish Labour with the vision and purpose it so desperately needs, and has come under particular fire for her role in the Better Together campaign. Recently, Labour's heartlands have shown indications of switching their allegiances, with areas such as North Lanarkshire and Glasgow voting Yes on 18th September and the media reporting on growing public disaffection in these areas towards the Labour Party. It seemed unthinkable only five years ago that many of Labour's safest seats in Scotland could ever be seriously threatened - now both the SNP and UKIP fancy their chances in North Lanarkshire.

Lamont has found it impossible to stamp her own authority on Scottish Labour, and if sections of the media are to be believed it would appear that she has been the victim of a "whispering campaign" from some Scottish MPs. Of that I cannot be sure, but her tactics in FMQs (she was much too adversarial) and her inability to demonstrate that she has the common touch - or at least the ability to come across as a little more human in TV interviews - did her few favours. Her poll ratings have been consistently low for some time, and in recent weeks she has been unable to effectively position Labour on the issue of further Scottish devolution.

Johann Lamont has been a largely ineffective leader for Scottish Labour, aside from a brief revival in the local elections of 2012, but in fairness many of her problems were not self-created. The lack of personal charisma and vision aside, her difficulties are largely historical. She inherited the leadership after Labour's worst election result in modern political history, with many of the more talented and experienced MSPs swept away in the SNP landslide. Labour's lack of credibility pre-dates Lamont's tenure and at least, unlike her predecessor, she was able to identify the problem even if she failed to provide a remedy. No previous Labour leader has faced such a challenging task - and never against the backdrop of a referendum on the nation's constitutional future. The reality is that Scottish Labour now finds itself in the position Manchester City were in during the mid 1990s - everyone can see its potential but no-one wants to take the reins.

In recent weeks, it's been painful to see how hamstrung Scottish Labour has been on the matter of devolution - paralysed by indecision stemming from the Conservatives' cynical manipulation of their position and the prominence given to Ed Miliband. Lamont's voice has, regrettably, been obscured by the Westminster infighting and the focus on the key players of Cameron, Clegg and Miliband. Whether she has a coherent, comprehensive and practical plan for Scotland's future is open to question, but as Scottish Labour leader she should have been afforded a more prominent role rather than being exiled to the sidelines.

Lamont will announce her resignation formally today, but The Herald reports that she has already issued a statement in which she says ""I am standing down so that the debate our country demands can take place. I firmly believe that Scotland's place is in the UK and I do not believe in powers for power's sake. For example, I think power should be devolved from Holyrood to communities. But colleagues need to realise that the focus of Scottish politics is now Holyrood, not Westminster." These few sentences neatly define the source of her problems: that Scottish politics is about Westminster and not Holyrood, and that she failed to realise this.

I am not convinced that her departure will restore the fortunes of Scottish Labour. Scottish Labour's biggest problem is with itself rather than its leader. Johann Lamont undeniably hoped to do so much more, and she was at least the first Scottish Labour leader since Donald Dewar to be an improvement on her predecessor, but her leadership was undermined by a combination of personal failings, tough circumstances and historic difficulties that even now Labour can neither face up to nor remedy.

There will now undoubtedly be speculation as to who will succeed her - there are no shortage of potential candidates. Talk of meltdown is premature and there is sufficient talent within Labour's ranks to re-create them as a force in Scottish politics if only they can learn the necessary - and often painful - lessons. What is certain is that, with the two largest parties having lost their leaders within weeks of each other, Scottish politics is entering a new chapter. Whether that is for better for worse only time will tell.

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