18 March 2009

The Airdrie AWS shouldn't be necessary

It seems that the ructions concerning who will be Labour's candidate to succeed John Reid as MP for Airdrie & Shotts has now rippled not just outside Lanarkshire, but also outside Scotland. Michael Crick has now grabbed the story.

To summarise, Labour has imposed an AWS rule on Airdrie & Shotts. The local party have bristled at this, fearing that they are being used as a conduit to get an ally of Harriet Harman into the House of Commons. Also, following the death of John Smith, they've played host to a number of big names that haven't necessarly been the local option. Comparisons are now being drawn with Blaenau Gwent, once Labour's safest seat, now lost, following the decision of the then local Welsh Assembly Member Peter Law to stand against the AWS-selected official Labour candidate Maggie Jones for the seat in 2005. He won that election, and on his death, his widow Trish won the Assembly seat as an Independent, while his election agent Dai Davies won the Westminster seat, also as an Independent.

Now, the line taken by one local member is that "at the present moment people are not thinking about running an independent local candidate". That's hardly re-assuring for Labour: "at the present moment" means that what happens when an election is called is still anyone's guess, while "people are not thinking" is not the same as ruling out the idea categorically.

And there's another dimension: in Blaenau Gwent, Labour was the only option, until Peter Law came along. In Airdrie & Shotts, it's not so clear: the SNP vote between the 2003 and 2007 Holyrood elections almost doubled, while Labour lost one sixth of its support. The boundaries between the Westminster seat and Holyrood seat are not all that different and if the same thing were to happen again from the 2005 Westminster election to the next one, Labour's majority in the seat would fall from 14,000 to less than five and a half thousand. The threat posed by an Independent candidate, therefore, is double what it was in Blaenau Gwent: not only could he (for it will almost certainly be a he) unseat Labour himself, but it is also possible that neither could win, and that the SNP could end up coming through the middle to gain the seat. That would be a disaster for Labour: this area's MP was John Smith, Labour Leader; he was succeeded by Helen Liddell, former Secretary of State for Scotland; she was succeeded by John Reid, former Home Secretary. Three party bigwigs in a row: for Reid to be succeeded by a non-Labour MP would be embarrassing; for him to be succeeded by the SNP challenger would be a humiliation for Labour.

But it needn't have been this way: Airdrie & Shotts selected a woman at its Holyrood candidate in 1999 - Karen Whitefield - and she may yet "do a Margaret Curran" and gain the selection (this, incidentally, is probably the only hope of keeping the AWS and holding the local party together). But as I said, Helen Liddell was Reid's predecessor: with Tony Blair having no more space for her in the Cabinet in 2003, and with the number of Scottish seats at Westminster reducing, Liddell was pensioned off with the post of High Commissioner to Australia in 2005, when she made space for John Reid whose Hamilton North & Bellshill constituency was disappearing. Airdrie & Shotts was represented by a woman, and a prominent one at that, until intrigue got in the way.

Could she not have remained in the House of Commons? Could Tom Clarke have not have been sent to the Lords instead, so that Coatbridge, Chryston & Bellshill? Could not Jimmy Hood have stepped down, to enable Reid to fight Lanark & Hamilton East? Or Tommy McAvoy, in Rutherglen & Hamilton East?

Apparently not, and so it was that party intrigue deprived Lanarkshire Labour of its most prominent female standard-bearer four years ago. Party intrigue looks set to play its part in the attempt to have a woman represent Lanarkshire Labour at Westminster once more, and while the cause of getting more women in Parliament is a noble one (there's a post on that coming at a later date), Labour may find itself re-acquainted with the old cliché about two wrongs not making a right.


Aye We Can ! said...

Good article - ypu ate right on the rank hypocracy of it all, how the comrades have used AWS to internall manouver, not promte gender equality.

Bbut I disagree with one aspect of it. Because this in not a Blaenau Gwent (ie a rock safe labour sea) , there will be no independent Labour protest candidate. The local comrades might not like an all woman shortlist, but they hate the nats above all else, and will know - because of the stats you quote - any Labour protest candidate wil jus hand et seat to the nat

anticipate the wife of a local councillor - or Karen Whitefield, Can't think who would be worse.

And I hope an SNP MP. But there will be no rebel labour candidate, or certainly no credible one. This is deepest lanarkshire - and (Lord) Reid would have them kneecapped!

Anonymous said...

It's all pish. The SNP will get in, not because they are any good or earned that, but because Labour are now shit and easily manipulated by people like Harman. Another year of this crap and sleazy lot until they are ousted.

Anonymous said...

It is possible that both SNP and labour candidates are female. Karen Whitefield is the obvious choice for Labour in the absence of male candidates; Sophia Coyle might run for the SNP. She ran as MSP candidate in the 2007 elections. But Alex Neil is also a possible for this seat. It's going to be interesting...

Anonymous said...

Great post Will, very interesting stuff. Hadn't considered that Karen Whitefield might end up being the compromise candidate. Might help her and Labour out with the redrawing of Scottish Parliament boundaries too.

However, where you write, "Could Tom Clarke have not have been sent to the Lords instead, so that Coatbridge, Chryston & Bellshill? Could not Jimmy Hood have stepped down, to enable Reid to fight Lanark & Hamilton East? Or Tommy McAvoy, in Rutherglen & Hamilton East?" is an interesting aspect of Lanarkshire Labour politics.

Therein lies the rub. Whilst messrs Clarke, Hood and McAvoy have approximately zero profile outwith their area and you might have thought they could be punted, these guys are part of the Lanarkshire Labour machine in a way that Reid actually isn't. They will remain Labour candidates for their seats so long as they decide to.

Anon #2 - Alex Neil as the SNP candidate for the Westminster seat of Airdrie and Shotts seems highly improbable. Why would he give up his place at the Scottish Parliament and in Scottish Government to head off to London?