Tom Harris, the sole MP in the race to replace Iain Gray, said Labour has to face some hard truths before the next Holyrood poll in 2016. It has floundered since devolution, and deserved its “gubbing” from voters in May, he said. It is also an “absolute disaster” that the party is synonymous with the public sector. Someone could contribute to society by becoming wealthy and paying taxes, not just by becoming a social worker or a teacher, he said.
Harris told the Sunday Herald: “There’s nothing certain in politics. The future of the Labour Party is not certain. There’s no God-given right of the Labour Party to be a player or an alternative government.
“We are not taken seriously today. We are not saying anything that’s relevant. The only thing keeping us in contention is that all the alternatives are crap. That’s not much of a standard to go by: Vote for Labour because everyone else is crap.”
He said of the leadership contest: “This is a life-or-death election for us. I think it’s quite conceivable the [Scottish] Labour Party could stop being relevant in the next few years. It happened to the Tory party. That could happen to the Labour Party. The tectonic plates did shift in May.”
The brutal assessment is designed to jolt Labour out of a rut, much as Tory leadership hopeful Murdo Fraser is trying to shock his “toxic” party into disbanding and forming a new one.
Harris admits he is the outsider in the race, but says he is willing to risk humiliation for the sake of the party, the Union and Scotland.
“My God, we are on the brink of the biggest constitutional upheaval that this country has ever seen. You can’t have a business-as-usual leadership contest. The idea that it’s business as usual in the Labour Party is going to kill us and it’s going to kill the Union. If you don’t believe in something strongly enough to risk humiliation, you shouldn’t be in politics.”
He said his message to those who will choose the leader is: “Don’t vote for the candidate whose politics you happen to agree with. Vote for the candidate that you think the largest section of the Scottish electorate will support.
“This is not about the leadership of the Scottish Labour Party. It’s about being first minister and a credible alternative. I think I have the polices, the ideas, the communication skills.”
Harris, 47, MP for Glasgow Cathcart since 2001, is running against Eastwood MSP Ken Macintosh and Glasgow Pollok MSP Johann Lamont.
“If the party wants a leader who will tell them what it wants to hear we might as well pack up and go home,” he said. “We want a leader who will speak uncomfortable truths to the party as well as to the country. If we just retire to our comfort zones that’s it, game over, and deservedly so.”
He said Labour has to broaden its appeal. “Making a lot of money, that’s a brilliant thing to do, and paying your taxes. So why is Labour not saying wealth creation is good, because without it you don’t get revenues from taxation?
“We are the party of the public sector. That’s a disaster for us, an absolute disaster.
“People need to know that when they go to the ballot box in 2016 they personally will be better off, their families will be better off, and Scotland will be better off. If we have not won that argument in four years’ time we will lose.”
He said Labour has to decide what it wants from devolution. “We came across as complacent, arrogant and not that interested in Holyrood. We never had a vision of what devolution was supposed to do.
“We got away with it for two elections. By the third election people were starting to catch on that our hearts were not in it. The electorate gave us a gubbing because we deserved it.”
When Alex Salmond led the SNP from Westminster between 2004 and 2007, Nicola Sturgeon led the SNP opposition at Holyrood, taking on Jack McConnell at First Minister’s Questions.
Harris said that if he led Scottish Labour as an MP, he wanted a range of Labour MSPs to confront Salmond each week, not just his deputy, in order to “showcase” the party’s talent. But whether or not he is leader, Harris says he wants to stand for Holyrood in 2016.
The UK Labour conference in Liverpool is today expected to ratify plans for a new Scottish Labour Party, distinct from London, and the new leader will be named on December 17.
James Dornan, SNP MSP for Cathcart, said: “There is utter confusion over what Labour stands for and who Labour are. Labour used devolution to take advantage of Scotland and have had their comeuppance.”
Shock admission by Scottish Labour leadership challenger