Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Peace, until When?

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Peace, until When?

Article excerpt

The left and right of the Scottish Labour Party have reached an uneasy truce. It won't last

You could be forgiven for thinking that the big Scottish story this week concerned a slight difference of emphasis between Stephen Dorrell, the Health Secretary, and Michael Forsyth, the Scottish Secretary, about the permanence of a Scottish parliament. But the main significance of that contretemps lies in Dorrell's aspirations to lead the Tories. For Scotland the more important, though under-reported event was Labour's Scottish executive's meeting last Saturday.

Straight after the Edinburgh meeting, Jack McConnell, the Scottish general secretary, announced to reporters: "The Labour Party is stronger than ever before going into a general election campaign."

The hacks looked startled. Was this the same embattled McConnell who had just ordered an investigation into a Monklands-style scandal in Glasgow; the man caught in the midst of an eve-of-poll civil war between Blairite loyalists and old Labour dissidents; the official struggling to head off a town-hall revolt against Gordon Brown's tax-and-spend policies?

It was - and Tony Blair's man in the north had good reason to be cheerful. He had just brokered a truce in the internecine conflict threatening to tear apart Scottish Labour weeks before polling day.

New Labour has headed off a Caledonian revolt but it has paid a rare political price: for the first time the Blairites have picked a fight with the left and backed down. Last Saturday two candidates - the economist Jim Stevens and the shop-steward Sylvia Tudhope - withdrew from elections to the Scottish executive which are to be held at the Scottish Labour conference in Inverness next month. That move marks the end of an audacious new Labour bid to take control of the unruly Scottish party before the election.

Stevens and Tudhope were supporters of "the Network", a clandestine Blairite sect staging a creeping coup north of the border. The group - set up to rein in the left and the party's nationalist wing after last summer's damaging devolution rows - stepped out of the shadows last month when sympathisers forced Tommy Sheppard to resign as McConnell's deputy and election strategist. Network supporters were then to challenge key rebels on the Scottish executive in next month's elections. Stevens took on Bob Thomson, the Scottish party's treasurer and rebel ringleader, and Tudhope challenged the home rule activist Jackie Baillie for the post of party chair.

The move caused uproar. Left-wingers accused McConnell and the shadow Scottish secretary, George Robertson, of presiding over a party within a party. Robertson and McConnell decided to tough it out, but the public wrangling quickly deepened. A leaked Network document, thought to have been written by Jim Murphy, a Blair fixer appointed "special projects officer" in Scotland last year, outraged the left. …

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