26 June 2008

Paisley North will be without an MSP for a day

With the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee deciding that Wendy Alexander should have registered the donations to her Leadership campaign with Parliamentary authorities, and deciding that sanctions did need to be applied, we have the result:

Wendy gets a day off work.

Well, that's not quite fair. The best analogy I can find is the one-match ban in football, that you might get for two bookings. Straight red-card offences usually involve lengthier suspensions. And here's the thing: we know - and the Electoral Commission agree - that Wendy Alexander did break the law on the donations to her campaign. She then went against Parliamentary procedure (though she claims she was told otherwise). So there are Wendy's two bookings.

Now, of course, it's tempting to ask when breaking the law stopped being a red-card matter, but frankly, there's no point. If she gave a shite about the law, she'd have resigned in December. If the Electoral Commission gave a shite, they'd have thrown the book at her.

And bluntly, I'm not overly impressed with the Committee's response: it's neither one thing nor the other.

You could argue that the Electoral Commission viewed the whole matter as a waste of time, and you could also point to the advice that Wendy Alexander received, and say that yes, she did break the rules but there's no point in taking this further. It involves giving up on people being called to account for breaking rules, but booting her out of the Chamber for any length of time only serves to keep her out of the Chamber. Now, if Wendy were a good parliamentary performer, this would be advantageous. Thing is, she isn't. How many blows has she landed in Holyrood? What has she said in there that you remember? "Bring it on" first appeared on the Politics Show so that's ruled out. That leaves her ramblings about John Swinney being a caterpillar. So if I were feeling vindictive, my sanction would be to force her to speak in every debate at Holyrood, not stop her from taking part. A ban is pointless.

Then there's the idea that a one-day ban is too limp. You can point out that she did break rules and people who break rules are supposed to be punished. One day should be two weeks. Or financial sanctions should be put in place. Basically something that shows our authorities take rule-breaking seriously.

One day isn't a meaningless slap on the wrist. But it's not something that makes you stop and think. When Colin Fox, Rosie Kane, Carolyn Leckie and Frances Curran brought FMQs to a standstill, the Standards Committee met that day and by that evening they were suspended for the entire month of September. And too right! They demonstrated their inability or unwillingness to treat Parliament with respect, and behave properly in the Chamber. As such, it was right that they should have been barred from it for a time. Problem is, all their expenses were taken away as well. And that left their staff without pay. That was unduly harsh, but it was seen as the consequences of breaking the rules. Wendy just won't be in the Chamber for a day, and someone else will take her place. How pointless is that? If you're going to punish her, punish her seriously. If you're not going to punish her seriously, don't bother punishing her at all.

And that is why the political argument, that this will hang over her for the Summer, is reading too much into things. No one will notice, save Wendy. No one will care, save Wendy. And it's one of two reasons why the ban on its own won't be enough to damage her Leadership. The only way the ban can make that happen is if her replacement does so much better than the Labour Leader herself has done over the past year - in that case, there will be a credible replacement for an ineffectual leader - but otherwise, this is just one for the procedure wonks.

And the second reason? Simple. Wendy Alexander has lurched from poor performance to poor performance, been put through the mangle over her Leadership Campaign funding, and faced brickbats for her rapidly-changing policy on the Referendum, not least from Labour MPs. She should be politically dead. And yet, every time she takes the seemingly fatal shot, things just seem to blow over. The only thing close to that is the Terminator. I half expect Wendy to melt during FMQs following a verbal roasting, only to re-form, and ask a new question. Like Arnie, she's relentless, and she seems unstoppable (this, incidentally is why I favour just letting the matter pass now - anyone who thinks that this will take her down is letting hope triumph over experience).

But remember, Arnie was on the losing side at the end of the first film. So maybe it's in everyone's interests for things to blow over, and for us to start again. The fatal blow could fall in June 2009, some time in early 2010, or even as late as May 2011. But the Terminator lost, and if she continues as she has done up to now, then eponymous villain of the first film, she will be defeated.

And unlike him, she won't be back.

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