THE biggest surprise in the news that Colin Smyth is to step down as General Secretary of Scottish Labour is that it took so long.
Mr Smyth has enjoyed his share of successes over the years but Labour's poor showing in last year's Holyrood elections should perhaps have sealed his fate far earlier, especially when the party's Scottish leadership election produced a new leader – Johann Lamont – with a new brief. Unlike her predecessors, her rule extends beyond Holyrood to take in the party's MPs and MEPs.
This move in itself was long overdue. Labour gave Scotland devolution but then failed to adjust to the new political world created by it. The party's power base remained at John Smith House in Glasgow, where Westminster MPs continued to rule the roost. Until the rude awakening of the 2007 election, power at Holyrood was taken for granted. (In fact, reaching further back, to the Hamilton by-election of 1967 that made Winnie Ewing the SNP's second MP, one must conclude that Labour has spent nearly half a century failing to recognise the incipient threat to it from Scottish nationalism.)
Mr Smyth's imminent departure follows the news that Rami Okasha, the director of communications and strategy at Labour's HQ, is also on his way out. If Labour is to focus full attention on the fight for the Union, the east-west turf wars that inevitably resulted from the retention of the Glasgow power base must stop. Moving that base to Holyrood merely finishes the process put in train by Jim Murphy and Sarah Boyack's review after last year's defeat.
Because of the size of the SNP majority and its dominance of the Holyrood committees, a strong opposition is particularly important. Ms Lamont has made a reasonable start, scoring some notable points at First Ministers Questions.
Most of the available evidence suggests that in a single-question referendum, Labour should be on the winning side. Though the SNP scored a historic victory in 2011 with 45% of the vote, it was on a turnout of 50%.
The challenge for Labour is to demonstrate that its differences with the SNP stretch far beyond the independence issue. Alex Salmond and his ministers enjoy talking the language of social democracy but many of their policies, on issues such as free bus travel for the over-60s and bridge tolls, benefit middle-class voters most. Unless Scottish Labour can lay out clear policies and a vision that speaks to the fears and hopes of Scottish voters, the party will continue to be dogged by the question: What is Scottish Labour for?
There are imminent opportunities for delineating policy on issues such as how far the SNP will go in topping up the woefully inadequate budget allocated by Westminster for Scottish crisis grants and community care grants.
The SNP is hoping that, come 2014, Scottish voters, faced with a choice between more of George Osborne or an independent Scotland, will choose the latter. However, the latest Populus poll puts Labour 15 points ahead of the Tories, suggesting that it is Ed Miliband who could be heading for Downing Street in 2015. Even so, to win the independence referendum Labour must show that it too has a sustainable alternative to the seemingly endless austerity on offer from the Coalition.
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