Alex Massie

Alas, poor Johann Lamont: a symptom, not the cause, of Labour’s decline in Scotland

Alas, poor Johann Lamont: a symptom, not the cause, of Labour's decline in Scotland
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It was the wee things that did it. Things like vision, inspiration, confidence and all the other details that coalesce into that strange something called leadership. There are many types of leader and leadership is another of those things easier to see than define but all successful leaders share one essential quality: they can choose a hill and persuade their followers that's the place they must die.

Johann Lamont never had a hill. By the end she didn't have much of an army either. Scottish Labour is a party suffering from some kind of political dementia right now. It kind of remembers being a contender and it still stands before a mirror shadowboxing but the moves are slower now and less convincing all the time. There is a search for lost glories that could, in other circumstances, be reckoned almost pitiful.

Actually, it is pitiful. Well before the end you could only feel sorry for Johann Lamont. She had never thirsted to be leader and it was, in truth, never quite clear that she deserved the job. No-one ever doubted her personal decency or integrity. She was, all too plainly, only doing her best. That made it worse. That Johann Lamont did not lead the Scottish Labour party terribly well was less remarkable than the fact she led it at all.

But then it long since ceased to be a great job. Look at Labour's benches at Holyrood and with only a few exceptions you're hard pressed to find many people you'd trust to supervise a tyre fire, let alone lead a political party. There is some young talent - Kezia Dugdale, Jenny Marra - but in general the cupboard isn't so much bare as non-existent. If this is the B Team you don't want to see the C Team.

And still Labour talks as though it had the right to reckon itself the natural party of government in Scotland. Those days are long gone and they ain't coming back any time soon. But still, good grief, Labour talks the talk with no idea how ridiculous they look when they try and do that whole walking the walk thing.

They're the political equivalent of Rangers football club. All this strutting around shouting We are the People. All these delusions of grandeur and future glory. Once upon a time it inspired some kind of terror. Now it's simply laughable. In each case these people have no idea how daft they look. People are tittering. A party can cope with being hated. That's to be expected and just the way it goes. But a party cannot survive ridicule. Denial is a river in Glasgow.

So poor Johann. So dogged, so decent, so out of her depth. She didn't really deserve all this but, then again, who would? Labour, in truth, still haven't come to terms withe their narrow defeat in 2007 far less the calamity of 2011.

In retrospect Lamont never had much of a chance. She was supposed to be the leader of all Labour types in Scotland, MPs as well as MSPs. But do you think Jim Murphy or Gordon Brown reckoned they should be taking orders from Johann Lamont? Quite. (Miliband's people never really reckoned her the leader either. They've undermined her whenever they could.)

So she was hobbled from the start. It didn't help that the party ran out of ideas years ago and, in truth, Johann Lamont was always too honest to pretend this was not the case. But she was poorly advised too. The "something for nothing" speech could have been the start of something - the beginning of a surprising honesty in Scottish politics, for instance - but it was ineptly phrased, a gift to the SNP, and quickly dropped. Dropped but forever held against poor Lamont.

Similarly, all the talk of the wee things for which the parliament had responsibility. Well, come on. What a nonsense that was. What a screaming own goal.

For all that people obsess about Labour's declining fortunes in their ancient Glaswegian and west of Scotland heartlands their biggest problem is less a decline in working-class support than the manner in which they have lost the Scottish middle-classes. Middle Scotland was once pretty red; now it is SNP yellow.

Labour have been out-Laboured by a nationalist party that has run Labour campaigns - on, say, the NHS - against Labour. No wonder the comrades have been confounded and reduced to a state of spluttering stupefaction. This shouldn't be happening; this isn't fair. Well it is happening and no-one cares if it is fair or not.

In response Labour types talk about core values and standing up for the national interest (Scotland, not Britain) but it never quite persuades. What is the point of them? What's their big idea? Actually, what's their wee idea? A baffling obsession with Alex Salmond's hotel bills does no kind of mustard cut.

It's almost a shame. Almost. There are plenty of decent people in the Scottish Labour movement but they're in a party that long since lost its ability to address or inspire aspirational Scotland. If, as Diderot nearly put it, Scotland cannot be free until the last Labour councillor is strangled with the last copy of the Daily Record then, blimey, on both fronts the country is closer to national liberation than ever before.

An absence of leadership is always more obvious than a surplus of the stuff and in that sense Johann Lamont, poor fish, never had a chance. It didn't help that she was ineptly advised or that she was hamstrung by Labour's Westminster delegation or that she never really enjoyed Ed Miliband's confidence (whatever that may be worth). All these things contributed to her downfall but none were so fatal as the astonishing lack of message. 

Politics is, at least in part, a question of stories and Labour don't have one. What is the point of them? What will you get from Labour that you won't get from the SNP? I don't know and that doesn't really matter very much but, rather more importantly, it's not clear Johann Lamont ever knew either and that matters a little more.

Despite the polls Labour may yet salvage something in Scotland at the general election next year but their chances of regaining supremacy at Holyrood look dismal. A new leader may help but, in the end, that's not the largest of Labour's problems. They need an idea and a purpose and, at present, there's no sign of either appearing. But without an idea you can't write a story and without a story you can't win elections. Johann Lamont wasn't up to the job but it wasn't all her fault. She was just a symptom, not the cause, of Labour's decline.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.