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Reform? Isn’t that what Bernard Matthews did to turkey?

28/11/2010

Certainly, the sense I get from the Tories’ plans for reform, as suggested by Lord Sanderson, strikes me more as ‘reform’ as in meat than anything else.

Let’s start with the question of Leadership. The review calls for a single, unchallenged Leader of the Scottish Conservatives, more akin to Tavish Scott’s position within the Liberal Democrats than Iain Gray’s position within Labour. This makes sense. The report also says that the Scottish Parliament is now the focus of political debate in Scotland. This also makes sense. Then the report says that the Leader need not necessarily be an MSP. In view of the last statement, this makes less sense. It also says that the Leadership absolutely has to be a contest. Good luck with that!

Of course, the Labour Leader in the Scottish Parliament has to be in the Scottish Parliament, but the LibDems also insist on their Leader being an MSP. The SNP and Greens do not, but the SNP has a robust Deputy Leader post, allowing Nicola Sturgeon to be a potent Leader of the Opposition while Alex Salmond was at Westminster while the Greens have a gender-balanced Leadership, and only two MSPs, both of which are male.

Besides, taking the SNP precedent, Alex Salmond was, on his return to the Leadership, an MP and Leader of a group of five MPs. The Tories have one MP – David Mundell, Junior Scotland Office Minister and generally seen as more of a liability than an asset. So he’s out of the running. They have one MEP – Struan Stevenson – but at 62, he’s unlikely to stand next year. And they occupy no Local Government posts of real stature either, so a Leader has to emerge from left field or the Holyrood Group.

And even then, who would it be? Despite being Leader for five years, Goldie has always been seen as basically a caretaker and is certainly not the figure to lead the party into a new era – this means that, if adopted, these proposals turn Goldie into a lame duck leader going into the Election. Murdo Fraser is her deputy and would be a safe bet: but there are policy implications which I’ll come back to. And from the rest of the Group, Jackson Carlaw is clearly sharpening the knives (and he too comes with presentational implications) but is gaffe-prone and does not occupy a significant place within the Tory hierarchy. At a pinch, there’s Derek Brownlee, the ‘mini-Swinney’. But he’s stuck fighting a pretty much un-winnable constituency for the Tories (Iain Gray’s East Lothian) and faces what stands to be an ugly battle in the List rankings with Peter Duncan, the former MP, so might not even be in the Chamber come next May. Incidentally, Peter Duncan might end up being a contender, but even he isn’t much to shout about and owes his place in the Tory psyche to having been the sole MP from 2001 to 2005.

But on the basis that Fraser seems the most viable contender (and perhaps the only viable contender), it puts the call for a contested election to the test. You can’t manufacture a contest where it’s not possible.

So the report doesn’t answer the core question: there are no Leaders.

Then there’s the question over candidate selection. Just what they need: to go into an election with a report saying that their method of determining who got onto the ballot paper needs an overhaul.

There’s also the issue of localism in the party. It’s interesting that having said the Scottish Parliament is where it’s at, they want an active association in every Westminster constituency. That’s also crazy when, under UK Government plans, the Westminster boundaries are going to be in a state of near constant flux, meaning that their plan to build a robust, long-term structure can’t work. At least using Holyrood boundaries would guarantee about a decade of stability: the boundaries to be enacted next year could well be in operation right the way through until the run-up to the 2023 Election.

This is also a thorny issue for the regional hierarchy proposed, which would see Regional offices developed for “East”, “North” and “West”. Now, this might work (or not) for football, but this is a different animal. How to define the regions?

Seeing as Westminster associations are what’s called for, this would be the starting point: with those Constituencies being used as building blocks. Of course, that still undermines the acknowledgement that Holyrood is where it’s at, and means that the regions themselves will have to chop and change every five years. Besides, it’ll make Holyrood and Local Election campaigning a nightmare: let’s say you put Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale & Tweeddale in West: then Scottish Borders Council would find itself straddling the boundary, and not only would the whole South Scotland Holyrood region be rent in twain, but one constituency, Midlothian South, Tweeddale & Lauderdale would find itself dealing with two different campaign hierarchies.

But then, with the planned regions, there is no ideal solution. If you used Holyrood regions, you’d have to put the East Lothian Holyrood constituency in “West” (splitting up East Lothian Council) or a number of constituencies in Galloway and Ayrshire in “East”. Not good.

Nor would using Council areas be suitable, especially with Westminster boundaries likely to straddle different areas more and more. Again, it’s the South which would feel this most keenly.

So the plan, while it has its merits on paper, does cause a real logistical headache.

But perhaps the most unrealistic part of the report is the call for UK Government ministers to be “accessible” to Tory Spokespeople. Can you imagine a staffer in 11 Downing Street knocking on George Osborne’s door to tell him that Derek Brownlee wants a word?

One last issue: the report calls for the Tories to have a distinctive set of policies. This is a double-edged sword. Yes, it would make them stand out, but it would leave them very isolated. Murdo Fraser, for instance, could deliver this, but only by harking back to the Tories’ Thatcherite past: the same past that’s condemned the Tories to the level of isolation that needed this report to be written. It’d screw up chances for compromise and coalition, and besides, it misses a point. The Tories had distinctive policies in 2001 and 2005. Labour had distinctive policies in 1983. And they got their asses kicked. It was when David Cameron led the Tory Party to a place where it was less hysterical about Europe and immigration (though push them onto these subjects and all hell breaks loose) that it became electable. The Tories in Scotland have a dilemma: convince themselves – as they have done – that most people agree with them at heart and it’s just the brand that’s a problem, stay out on the right and have no prospect of advance, or move to the common ground and try and push into a crowded marketplace with no attractive personalities to help sell them.

For me, that’s the Tories’ problem: whatever they do, it’s not going to be enough. In England, and even in Wales, the party has recovered to a position of relative strength. The Scottish Tories appear to have missed the boat.

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