Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Run, Gordon, Run

In November, there was the sad news that Labour's Helen Eadie, Member of the Scottish Parliament for Cowdenbeath, had passed away after a battle with cancer. She was one of the few Labour MSPs left from the original May 1999 intake, and the fact that she held onto her seat while safer ones were toppling to the Scottish National Party speaks volumes about her commitment to her constituents.

And on 23 January 2014, there will be a by-election. Curiously, the last by-election was in October, in next door's Dunfermline, which saw Labour win the seat from the SNP.

At the May 2011 elections to the Scottish Parliament, Labour made a mistake. They had failed to win the May 2010 election to the House of Commons, and so should have accepted they would be out of power in Westminster until at least May 2015, and hence have made recapturing Holyrood a real priority. There were Scottish politicians who would not hold office in Westminster again - so why not put former Home Secretary John Reid and former Scottish Secretary Helen Liddell at the top of the Scotland Central list, while giving Liddell the task of recapturing Falkirk West from the SNP and aiming for Reid to replace the former First Minister, Jack McConnell, in Motherwell & Wishaw? And in the Lothian region, let Edinburgh Pentlands see a battle between sitting Conservative MSP David McLetchie and Labour's Alistair Darling, MP for Edinburgh South West and former Chancellor of the Exchequer, with both of them guaranteed to become MSPs via being top of their regional lists.

Either the SNP would have led the Scottish Government - and Alex Salmond, the First Minister and MSP for Aberdeenshire East, would be facing Reid and Liddell - or else Labour would have led the Scottish Government, with Iain Gray, the MSP for East Lothian, having the option of bringing people with years of Westminster ministerial experience into his Cabinet.

In the same vein, seeing that the sitting Liberal Democrat MSP for Ross, Skye & Inverness, John Farquhar-Munro, was retiring, why shouldn't that party have run Charles Kennedy, its former leader and sitting MP for Ross, Skye & Lochaber, as its candidate in Skye, Lochaber & Badenoch?

Picture Scottish politics like that - Gray as First Minister, Kennedy as Deputy First Minister, with Darling, Liddell and Reid sitting at the Cabinet table.

I see that Labour have chosen Alex Rowley, leader of Fife Council as its by-election candidate. Good luck to him - as someone who is Unionist first, Conservative second, I genuinely mean that. But I wonder if, instead, he could have been held back for the House of Commons' Kirkcaldy & Cowdenbeath by-election?

At this point, you will ask - what Kirkcaldy & Cowdenbeath by-election?

Its sitting Labour MP is the former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. If you look at the 2010 general election result in Scotland, you'll see he did well. He increased Labour's share of the vote, as well as increasing its number of MPs by 1 compared to the May 2005 general election (the BBC lists Labour as having 41 MPs at both, but in 2005, Glasgow North East was won by Mr Speaker seeking re-election.)

While in England and Wales, Labour lost seat after seat after seat, in Scotland Labour did not lose a single seat. Yes, Brown alientated Middle England - but Scotland isn't Middle England.

In Scotland, Brown is a winner.

Hence, Brown should contest the Cowdenbeath by-election. Now, to show he is serious about this, he should have to resign his Westminster seat and allow Rowley to stand as the Labour candidate in that by-election. Could it be possible to have both by-elections on 23 January?

The rules for the timing of by-elections to the House of Commons are based on a timetable in the Representation of the People Act 1983, which allows the Returning Officer some leeway. The by-election is the 8th, 9th or 10th "working day" after the deadline for the delivery of nomination papers. The gap between the moving of the writ in the House of Commons is from 3 to 7 "working days".

That Act had quite a broad definition of "working day" - it was tightened up by the Representation of the People Act 1985 by redefining a "working day" to be any day that wasn't one of these:

  • Saturday
  • Sunday
  • Christmas Eve
  • Christmas Day
  • Maundy Thursday
  • Good Friday
  • A day of public thanksgiving or mourning
  • A Bank Holiday in the part of the United Kingdom where the by-election takes place

There was a minor amendment due to the Electoral Administration Act 2006, which removed Maundy Thursday from this list.

So, for 23 January to be 8th, 9th or 10th working day after the deadline for the delivery of nomination papers, then this deadline has to be Thursday 9 January, Friday 10 January or Monday 13 January. If the deadline is as early as 9 January, and this is between 3 and 7 working days after the writ is moved in the House of Commons, then the writ could be moved as late as Monday 6 January or as early as Friday 27 December (remember that in Scotland, Thursday 2 January is a Bank Holiday). While for a 13 January deadline, the relevant dates are Wednesday 8 January and Tuesday 31 December.

This is where there is a slight snag. The House of Commons rises on Thursday 19 December and returns on Monday 6 January. There would be a tight - but do-able - timeline.

The simplest way for Brown to cease to be an MP, and to set the whole timetable in motion, would be for Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, to appoint him Steward & Bailiff of the Three Hundreds of Chiltern - a post currently held by former Energy & Climate Change Secretary, the Liberal Democrats' Chris Huhne. There is no point in Huhne remaining in that role any longer.

With it being possible to do this, the question is why should Brown seek to become an MSP?

For the first reason, we need to look at the elections to the European Parliament next May. If we look at the current crop of Belgian Members of the European Parliament, we have Jean-Luc Dehaene of the Flemish Christian Democrats (who was Prime Minister from March 1992 to July 1999) and Guy Verhofstadt of the Flemish Liberal Democrats (who was Prime Minister from July 1999 to March 2008). Indeed, Verhofstadt is leader of the Alliance of Liberals & Democrats for Europe MEPs, and wants to be its candidate for the Presidency of the European Commission - the post for which Dehaene was vetoed by former Conservative Prime Minister John Major in 1994.

From July 2009 to January 2012, the President of the European Parliament was Jerzy Buzek, of Poland's Civic Platform. But go back to the period from October 1997 to October 2001, and Buzek was the Polish Prime Minister.

Now consider it's 2018, and the Conservative party is choosing its candidates for the following year's European elections. You are a Conservative member in South East England and through your letterbox drops a booklet with details of those Conservatives who want to be on the list for the region's MEPs. You flick through it, and one bio starts:

I was elected MP for Witney in June 2001. In December 2005 I was elected leader of the Conservative party, and following the May 2010 general election I was appointed Prime Minister.....

You couldn't imagine it, could you? In the United Kingdom, the European elections are treated as a bit of light-hearted fun, while in other countries they are so important that ex-Prime Ministers are happy to stand.

To run a big beast in an election is to say that this is important, that you are taking it seriously. In the political jungle, there is no beast bigger than a Prime Minister.

We go back to the European Union for the second reason. The letters page of the local paper often publishes letters from UK Independence Party activists, and then I have to write in to correct their facts and they respond with a pile of twaddle. But there is one thing I notice - the ad hominem comments. In their world, no-one can seriously think that the EU is in the United Kingdom's best interests, so anyone who supports membership must have some naked self-interest at play. Politicians who support membership - well, it is clear that they are only supporting membership because they are looking for a cushy Eurojob.

Prime Minister David Cameron has made clear he will not have a debate with Salmond, arguing that instead Salmond should debate with Darling, as chairman of Better Together. Of course, it would be in Salmond's interests to have the case for the Union made in the debate by an "English toff".

Now, Darling is an MP (although if Labour had had the foresight to take the strategy I outlined earlier on, he would be an MSP), and so he takes his pay from Westminster. He has much to lose, financially, if Scotland becomes independent. Let's face it, if Better Together puts forward any MP or peer, then the critics can say, "well, they would support the Union, wouldn't they? Just think what happens to their bank account if we break away."

Consider instead Brown - having resigned from the House of Commons and having won the Cowdenbeath by-election - facing Salmond in the debate. He - unlike Darling, or indeed anyone that Better Together could produce - has experience of these sort of debates (remember the leaders' debates in the run-up to the last general election). He could point to the letters MSP after his name and state that he is a Scottish politician, that he has no "selfish, strategic or economic interests" in remaining in the UK, but that he passionately believes that this is in Scotland's best interests.

And there is no way that Brown could be described as English, Tory or toff.

The third reason is to do with Cameron. A major case made by Labour for devolution was that the Conservatives were running Scotland from May 1979 to May 1997 with not much support in Scotland. Parts of the SNP argument for independence rests on a democratic deficit, namely that decisions are made in some areas by a Conservative/Liberal Democrat Government with only 12 of Scotland's 59 MPs, with independence being a long-term solution to a short-term issue.

Brown's presence would remind Scottish voters that there have been, in recent memory, Labour Governments, and - as much as it pains me to say this - there could be Labour Governments again. As Shadow Foreign & Commonwealth Secretary, Douglas Alexander, recently wrote:

This coalition government will have less than eight months of its mandate left to run on referendum day. The polls indicate that the prospect of a change of UK government is real. And on that referendum day a 16-year-old voting for the first time will have had a UK Labour government for three-quarters of their life. As Scots, we understand the difference between anger with a transient Tory government and supporting the permanent break-up of Britain. The Nationalists say "walk away and all will be well". Yet while the clear majority of Scots, myself included, want change, we do not judge independence as the route to achieve those changes

Running Brown would be a bold move, and a real game-changer in the run-up to the referendum.

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