25 July 2010

The State of the Secretary

Following on from last week's Guest Post by Socialist Animal on who might emerge as Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland once the Labour Leadership and Shadow Cabinet elections have been and gone, I thought I'd take a look at the state of the actual Secretary's role as it stands, and its ramifications for Labour and the SNP.

So the first part of this post, then, the actual role as it stands, is going to be rather short.

What exactly is Michael Moore doing?

We're seeing that there are more direct interventions from the actual subject portfolios: Danny Alexander has, arguably, engaged more with the Scottish Parliament as Chief Secretary to the Treasury than he did in his brief spell as Secretary of State for Scotland, when his only notable public utterance was to confirm that he had nothing to add following David Cameron's words, and Nick Clegg has got into a direct row over the timing of the AV referendum and its clash with next year's Holyrood election. Even David Cameron and William Hague have got in on the act with their entrance into the Lockerbie row, and the Scottish Affairs Select Committee has resolved to discuss the end of the video gaming industry tax break with George Osborne directly. Michael Moore appears to be cut out of the process.

It may be that a lot of this is owed to bad timing: we know that he wants to push Calman forward, but this has been overshadowed with the continuing row with the US Senate over al-Megrahi, so he is, perhaps, just unfortunate. But even so, his interventions have been fewer in number and of a lower profile than those of Jim Murphy, whose spell in Dover House saw him pretty much everywhere, or indeed, Moore's counterpart in the Welsh Office, Cheryl Gillan, whose first act was to get into a row with the Welsh Assembly Government over the timing of the referendum on more powers for the Assembly.

Compared with Murphy and Gillan, Moore looks positively Trappist. And that means that Dover House is out of the picture.

And this spells trouble for the LibDems: with Clegg unilaterally scheduling a referendum to clash with the Holyrood poll, and with Alexander being put up to make the argument for budget cuts, it's LibDem ministers who are being forced to fight the main battles, and they're being forced onto the wrong side of the argument. This could spell disaster next year: five LibDem constituencies are vulnerable to just 5% swings; they risk losing their regional seat in Central Scotland altogether; even factoring in extra regional seats to balance out Constituency loses, the LibDem Group could find itself reduced to just thirteen members next year if the Party can't find its mojo again.

Meanwhile, it just highlights the irrelevance of the Scottish Tories: David Mundell is not helping matters by being mired in a row over his election expenses and an accusation that he planned a smear campaign against his current boss, but despite being the sole Tory MP in Scotland, he is subordinate to a Secretary of State who appears to have been drowned out of matters himself. Mundell is at best an insignificant member and at worst a liability in a Department which few appear to care about at this time.

Yet this, perversely, makes things harder for the Shadow Secretary of State. Now, the previous occupant of the post had difficulty making waves but I'd put that down to 1) the occupant being a Tory, and 2) the occupant being David Mundell, whose impact has been low. However, even Jim Murphy appears to have fallen down a black hole of late which suggests that the job is not all that big a draw. And it's not hard to see why: the occupant isn't in the Westminster Government; they aren't in the Scottish Government; they aren't the Leader of either Opposition and the Department they're shadowing isn't getting in the papers. The only Shadow Cabinet portfolio worse in that respect would be Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. So it's hard to shape the news agenda, and on that basis, it hardly matters who gets the Shadow job - it's currently worthless.

Of course, this means it's Iain Gray's big moment: Jim Murphy stole the show in Dover House, leaving Gray out of the picture. Now, it's his time to shine, and with the Holyrood elections next, and Gray effectively a First Ministerial candidate, that's the way it should be. But it's only a good thing if Gray and his people use the limelight well and there seem to be echoes of Labour's post-2007 behaviour at the moment. The party seemed to get its act together, and became more professional and effective when Murphy was at the front, but under Gray it seems to have gone back to form. When in a position to make common cause with the SNP on the timing of the referendum, Gray could only be grudging, noting that he agreed with Alex Salmond "for once". George Foulkes opted to use Nicola Sturgeon's wedding as a vehicle for a venomous press release about how she ought to change her name. And Richard Baker has now told the press that it is perfectly proper for politicians to kowtow to foreign legislatures, on the basis of his protests against Alex Salmond and Kenny MacAskill not being willing to travel to Washington DC just to say something that they've already said about a thousand times over. So the Scottish Parliamentary Labour Party is centre-stage, but on the basis of early performances, the show doesn't deserve to last too long.

In short, without Jim Murphy sitting in Dover House, Labour has gone back three years. That's not a good thing.

So this, then, is the SNP's big chance: the Scotland Office has been neutered, the UK Government ministers discussing policy in Scotland appear to be on the wrong side of an argument, and Labour have gone back to their worst. Moreover, with this being a Holyrood election, the Tory stick isn't quite as effective and besides, despite what we were told in this year's campaign, voting Labour did not keep the Tories out anyway.

But more importantly, with UK ministers directly involved, we're back to where we were before Jim Murphy's appointment. For me, a major contributing factor to the SNP's victory in the Glasgow East By-Election (though I accept that with such a close result, all factors were major contributing factors) was the party's ability to frame the contest as a tale of two governments, with each promoting and defending its record. The SNP came out on top as it had an effective frontman for that purpose, whereas the UK Government did not. It took the appointment of Murphy to spike those guns, as we saw in Glenrothes, Glasgow North East and the General Election. Although the Coalition Government has someone in Murphy's job, it doesn't have anyone performing his role as he did.

In short, Labour need a lot of creativity at Westminster and a more mature approach at Holyrood if they're to make any progress. Conversely, with a weakened Scotland Office and the Shadow Secretary of State role reduced to an irrelevance, there is a major opportunity for the SNP to seize the initiative.

But with only a little over nine months left until polling day (barring any last minute panic-driven changes to the Scotland Act), the party must move quickly.

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