Dennis Takes Deadly Aim at Labour

By Brown, Tom | New Statesman (1996), October 9, 2000 | Go to article overview

Dennis Takes Deadly Aim at Labour


Brown, Tom, New Statesman (1996)


Dennis Canavan is the Scottish Ken Livingstone. Though he no longer sports what used to be the prickliest of the "wild man of the left" beards, his whole being still bristles -- with wounded pride, slighted self-regard, outraged dignity and explosive indignation.

The Labour Party really should have known better than to prick his balloon. But it did, with unnecessary offensiveness, and now it must pay the price in electoral embarrassment. Canavan, expelled from the party last year, has resigned his Falkirk West seat, thus triggering a Westminster by-election at exactly the moment and in exactly the place Labour would wish to avoid one.

Taking place within what could be months of a UK general election, the by-election will assume a significance far beyond the nondescript Scottish central-belt burgh whose only claim to fame, until now, has been a First Division football team unable to scrape together enough money to build itself a decent stadium.

Moreover, although Canavan insists it is sheer coincidence, the announcement of his Westminster resignation in his column for the Herald tied in neatly with the paper's latest System Three poll. This showed Labour trailing 14 per cent behind the Scottish Nationalists on the first vote for Holyrood, 13 per cent behind on the second vote and level for Westminster at 33 per cent, a 23-year Labour low. The only consolation for the party is that the poll was taken before the Blair-Brown fightback speeches at the Brighton conference.

The stupidity is that Canavan would have been happy if Labour had let him represent Falkirk West for the party in the Scottish Parliament. Instead, when he made what he thought was a routine application for the candidacy, he was spurned because of his obstinate and outspoken defiance of Blair's leadership.

The snub was administered by a Scottish Labour Party vetting panel, charged with ensuring that the Scottish Parliament was stuffed with biddable new Labour MSPs. The panel did its job with such zeal that its candidates were nicknamed "Donald's Dollies", after the sheep cloned by scientists on the outskirts of Edinburgh.

The former council leader, who had represented the area at Westminster for more than 25 years, was told he was unacceptable as its representative in the Holyrood parliament. Donald Dewar, the First Minister, rubbed it in by saying sniffily: "He wasn't selected because he wasn't good enough."

Apart from the affront to his own esteem, this reflected on an electorate that had sent Canavan to Westminster with increasingly large majorities. They repaid Labour by shunning the official candidate and giving Canavan the biggest majority in the Scottish Parliament.

That election night, he made a first attempt at reconciliation with "the party into which I was virtually born and bred". Later, at the swearing-in ceremony for the new parliament, he surprised everyone by striding across the chamber with his hand outstretched to Dewar. …

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