Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Stalking donkey or thoroughbred contender?

It's not entirely clear whether Tom Harris's decision to [sort of declare his candidacy for Scottish Labour leader in a contest that's impossible under the current rules because the post doesn't actually exist and the closest equivalent - leader of the Labour MSPs in the Scottish Parliament - he's ineligible for as an MP] represents a serious stab at becoming Scottish Labour leader or is more of a stalking horse-style move to draw out the big beasts amongst Scottish MPs at Westminster, who are of course reputed to view Holyrood as something inferior to the real deal in London.

Of course, Harris has stated that his move is designed to make the likes of Douglas Alexander and Jim Murphy show their hand and also to promote a wider party debate about "ideas" (although his remarks on Newsnicht seemed to portray a greater desire for the leadership per se than his earlier comments as reported in this morning's press). But it's hardly implausible to suggest that he's being slightly disingenuous and that he really does see himself as a contender, and that he's in effect using the stalking horse argument for his own benefit rather than the more conventional approach of employing it to test the waters for the benefit of others.

Thus he could be using Alexander and Murphy as a smokescreen to test opinion on himself as Scottish Labour leader. After all, following his stint as a transport minister in London it's often been said that Harris craves a position of power in some capacity, even reputedly giving up his highly successful blog in the believe that it was a stumbling block to a ministerial post, and indeed that he's now a bit miffed that Ed Miliband hasn't seen fit to recognise his talents in the shadow Labour team.

Of course, he's hardly Scottish Labour's 'stalking donkey' - the uncomplimentary description of Tory MP Anthony Meyer when he stood against Margaret Thatcher in the hope that a big beast like Michael Heseltine would show his hand - since he has had some experience of ministerial office, is clearly no daftie and on TV and radio seems more than plausible in today's media-obsessed environment. Moreover, ideologically he's perhaps a bit more realistic than those in the Scottish Labour party who seem to think that all they need is someone slightly to the right of Jimmy Reid or Tommy Sheridan to guarantee electoral success.

By the same token, however, his centre right politics are presumably a major barrier to his acceptance by the Labour Party in Scotland, and his Nat-baiting on Labour Hame verges on the juvenile and gratuitously provocative, and if Iain Gray managed to become the bĂȘte noire of the cybernats without ever venturing onto cyberspace then it's easy to imagine the kind of reaction that a 'Tom Harris for First Minister' campaign would engender.

But clearly to a large extent all that's only a concern to those of us who are (relatively) obsessed by online Scottish politics - and to a greater or lesser extent whoever leads Scottish Labour will be a cybernat bĂȘte noire anyway - thus from the electoral perspective Harris's online activities and history are likely to be of only marginal importance to voters more generally.

But to that extent he's also effectively a complete unknown, but then again Murphy and Alexander are hardly household names, and it's difficult to think of anyone who could possibly lead Scottish Labour and have a profile even approaching the likes of Nicola Sturgeon and Kenny MacAskill, never mind the biggest beast himself.

Of course, that's one of several reasons why leading Scottish Labour is regarded as something of a poisoned chalice, and why no one other than Tom Harris has as yet declared their hand. Thus if he genuinely is a stalking horse it would be ironic indeed if there was no real contest and he won by default.

But whether this would be because he is a genuine thoroughbred or because the rest of the field comprised old nags who were left in the stalls, this would quite possibly not become apparent for some time after his effective coronation.

(And as per this recent post, if Tom Harris became Scottish leader, and was an MSP and MP simultaneously (at least for a transitional period) this would give him even more reason to ignore things like the exploitation and profiteering attaching to the taxi cartels operating both north and south of the border!)


Angus McLellan said...

Neither a thoroughbred nor a donkey I'd say. There aren't any thoroughbreds likely to enter this race. If the field were limited to Johann Lamont, a donkey if ever there was one, I'd have suggested that Labour should twist Gray's arm to make him stay on. Harris's biggest plus is that at least he's trying and has some ideas. That's more than can be said for anyone else in what should be the main oppostion party. Some people have said that Harris is too right-wing and Blairite for the job, but I very much doubt that Scots voters would agree. You'd have to be well to the right of the average Scots inhabitant of the blogosphere to have any chance of becoming First Minister.

As for Harris baiting nats - and enemies on the left - I'd probably something similar in his position. What's the point of having a blog or doing podcasts if you can't have a bit of fun?

Stuart Winton said...

Can't really disagree with most of what you say, Angus.

However, I'm not so sure about what you say regarding Tom's online activities.

The problem with social media is that politicians can tend to say controversial things that can later come back to haunt them, and this is particularly so with someone so prolific as Tom.

Indeed, that seems to be one of the reasons he discontinued his blog - because it was regarded as thwarting his desire for a ministerial career, and ditto perhaps for Iain Dale.

Of course, Tom is hardly in the Damien McBride league, but his various blogposts about substantive policy issues could be used against him if he stood for or became Scottish Labour leader, and indeed Newsnet Scotland has alread unearthed something interesting he said in the past regarding the position of Scottish leader.

Of course, as a backbencher or councillor people might be able to get away with their more controversial stuff, but it can come back to bite them on the bum when seeking higher office.

For example, there was all the stushie about Labour candidate Stuart MacLennan's tweets in the last Westminster election, over which he was sacked (I see he's resurfaced with a guest post on Better Nation) and there was also (if I remember correctly) councillor Grant Thoms in Glasgow, whose blog came back to haunt him when he was (I think) in line for a high-profile by-election candidacy.

Of course, none of that is to say that Tom will get into trouble over some of the edgier stuff he's authored, but it's clearly a potential minefield for someone who could be up against Alex Salmond in the next Holyrood quasi-presidential contest.

barbarian said...

Tom Harris I think is playing an opening hand to try and motivate someone to try their luck.

But to beat Salmond is almost impossible. There are only a handful of politicians who could take him on in a debate: Blair, Galloway and Kennedy.

Blair isn't shiny anymore, and doesn't have a Scottish accent anyway.

Galloway has a liking for latex and a saucer of milk.

Kennedy is probably drowning his sorrows as the good ship Lib Dem departs to the depths of the political abyss.

The best bet for Labour is for Salmond to retire methinks.

Angus McLellan said...

It's not all about Salmond though. He wasn't as popular as the SNP were according to the preliminary results from the Scottish Election Survey.

Anyway, the usual rule of thumb is that governments lose elections rather than oppositions winning them. If the SNP do badly enough even Johann Lamont could do well in 2016, and if they do even passably well it won't matter who is Labour leader and what exactly they are the leader of.

barbarian said...

Fair comment Angus. I've always felt that the SNP rely far too much on Salmond. There are few contenders to take his crown once he retires, at present only Sturgeon and Russell seem capable, with possibly Keith Brown as well.

It leaves them a bit vulnerable. They should be thankful that Labour is weak at present.