A Stage for Massacres: Factional Warfare Is Breaking out in the Scottish Labour Party, Endangering Its Authority in the One Place It Should Be Secure

By Milne, Kirsty | New Statesman (1996), January 24, 1997 | Go to article overview

A Stage for Massacres: Factional Warfare Is Breaking out in the Scottish Labour Party, Endangering Its Authority in the One Place It Should Be Secure


Milne, Kirsty, New Statesman (1996)


With polling day just weeks away, Labour is in turmoil. The general election co-ordinator has unexpectedly quit his post. Dissidents and loyalists are ready to wage a bitter battle for seats on the executive committee at the forthcoming party conference. Despite senior party figures' appeals for calm, there is widespread paranoia in the wake of a number of press reports about a shadowy Blairite group, known simply as "the Network".

Labour in five years' time? No, this is Labour now - north of the border. The Scottish Labour Party is undergoing pre-election convulsions that are nonetheless traumatic for passing practically unnoticed in the south. The belief that a Scottish parliament is almost within reach is making MPs and activists jittery.

Nerves were jangled last summer when Tony Blair suddenly announced that a Labour government would hold a referendum on devolution, with an extra question on whether a Scottish parliament should have tax-raising powers. This volte-face perturbed pro-home rulers, alert for signs of backsliding, and exposed them to ridicule from the Scottish National Party, currently on 23 per cent in the polls to Labour's 45 per cent.

"It was a provocative move, made without consultation," says Bob Thomson, a Unison official who is party treasurer in Scotland. "But we're democrats and we've accepted the change in policy. My own union will be donating [pounds]100,000 to the referendum campaign, and arguing for a 'Yes-Yes' vote." (Support for tax-raising powers is now regarded as a crucial index of commitment to devolution.)

The dust has not settled, however. George Robertson, the shadow scottish secretary, was badly rattled by the summer conflict. Some leadership loyalists considered it intolerable that he and Blair should have been openly criticised by members of the Scottish executive. With its still-powerful trade unions and strong socialist tradition, Scotland has never been a modernisers' paradise, but resentment has sharpened. "There is near-hysteria being whipped up against Blair in Scotland," says a Labour frontbencher. "Suddenly everything is his fault."

According to one scenario, the leadership is seizing its last opportunity before polling day to bring the Scottish party into line. Elections for the executive will take place at the Scottish Labour Party conference in March, and rebels who voted against the "two-question referendum" in the summer face a challenge from what is, in effect, a Blairite slate. The Scottish Labour Party refuses to disclose the names of those nominated for places on the executive. But at least eight sitting members from the constituency and women's sections are being challenged by loyalist candidates. Even the post of chair, customarily filled by the previous vice-chair, will be contested.

Thomson himself faces competition for the treasurer's post from Jim Stevens, an economist. Their rivalry has degenerated into a public slanging match, prompting Roberston to call for calm. "I'm not some old Labour dinosaur," protests Thomson. "I would remind people that I had a personal letter from Tony Blair thanking me for my help in winning the Clause Four vote in Scotland. And I've campaigned for electoral reform, persuading the party to accept the additional-member system to elect a Scottish parliament."

Although Thomson could survive, other candidates may not, and the stage is set for a bloodbath at the conference in Inverness in March. David Stark, the party chair, has argued that elections should be suspended to avert a row. But the conference provides two days of free airtime and a pre-election platform for Blair. To install a loyal executive would be a bonus.

So when it emerged last weekend that some of those standing for the executive are involved in a Blairite group called "the Network", tempers flared. …

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