WHEN Frank Sinatra and Celeste Holm, well before Chris Tarrant or Jeremy Clarkson, asked Cole Porter’s question, “Who wants to be a millionaire?”, the point of the song was to pretend that being rich wasn’t all that much cop. It gains its comic effect by assuming that most of us would very much like a marble swimming pool, a gigantic yacht, to wallow in champagne, to tire of caviar and so on.

There’s probably the odd line, though, that would give each of us pause. I don’t much care for champagne but it’s “who wants the bother of a country estate?” that I suspect will chime with many people.

You’re supposed to laugh at “A country estate is something I’d hate”, but lots of us probably would, because it’s the kind of thing that you could take a great deal of pleasure in only if you also relished the hard work involved.

Having bought a Euromillions ticket, perhaps I will get to find out. But there are things other than money for which people compete that are even more mystifying. This week, for example, sees the end stages of the contest to become leader of the Scottish Labour party – between Monica Lennon and Anas Sarwar – surely a job that no sane person would want.

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Being a Labour MSP already puts you in much the same position as a Siamese courtier who’s been given an elephant as white as ice cream, or a Trojan sentry muttering: “A huge horse? You shouldn’t have.”

Wanting actually to lead the party is like Macbeth, who described his ambitions as a “poisoned chalice” in advance, and went ahead anyway.

People my age look at the current state of the Scottish Labour party with slight bemusement. Until 10 years ago, the party had not just won the Scottish bit of every election during my lifetime, but did so with the élan of Arbroath slotting the goals in against Bon Accord in 1885.

It was a different story across the UK, of course. As early as 1980, the economist Arthur Seldon predicted that: “Labour as we know it will never rule again”, and so far he’s been proven right. It’s been almost five decades since Labour under anyone other than Tony Blair has won a general election (and Wilson’s majority in 1974 was 3).

The party enjoyed a membership boost under Jeremy Corbyn, but after the initial surge it turned out that the half a million card-carrying true believers were just about the only people who didn’t think his policies were electoral poison. The net result was the Tories getting a thumping majority that included seats like Bishop Auckland, Sedgefield and Bolsover.

Replacing Mr Corbyn with Sir Keir Starmer was a first step in trying to look a bit more like Mr Blair’s party, rather than Che Guevara’s, but it hasn’t done them much good. Labour, which for Westminster election prospects could normally expect to be about 10 points ahead in the polls at this stage of a Tory government, is still five behind.

There are two main reasons, neither easy to do much about. The first is that there are still too many Corbyn fans: some are basically communists, some are infantile fantasists obsessed with identity politics few people care about, some are anti-semitic, but those are all just different things that the vast majority of the electorate won’t vote for.

Ideally, Sir Keir would just get rid of them, but then he wouldn’t have much of a party left.

The other problem is created just by being the opposition, which few people pay any attention to at the best of times, unless they are political obsessives. And that’s when the opposition can oppose, which the pandemic makes difficult.

Unless your prime interest in life is hating the Tories, you’ll want the government to do well; not for their benefit, but because we’re in a global emergency, and getting health and the economy sorted directly affects all of us. Sir Keir himself, quite sensibly, admits that “most people want the government to succeed”. But that’s jolly bad luck for him.


Even so, I can imagine the UK party making a recovery, if it moves nearer the centre-ground, rids itself of its most obvious loonies and, assuming something like more normal politics returns, waits for the numerous mistakes the government is bound to make. But it will be a long haul.

So I feel a bit sorry (not that much, obviously) for Sir Keir. The leadership of the Scottish party, with its two dozen MSPs and solitary MP, however, strikes me as even more of a lost cause. The SNP’s current dominance creates numerous difficulties, all of them worse for Labour than any other party.

An obvious one is that lots of SNP voters are former Labour voters. That not only reduces base support but in turn makes the Conservatives the principal opposition. And that makes it more likely that even Labour-minded voters may vote Tory, if their priority is stopping the SNP.

This problem is compounded by the fact that Labour’s stance may be Unionist, but it’s not clear, either in principle or on tactical grounds, whether that cause is better served by devo-max or some other further concession or by resolute opposition to another referendum. The Tories may be misguided in thinking the latter will work, but at least they’ve established which option they’re backing.

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Since Labour introduced devolution in order to kill off nationalism, I doubt that more of it is the best weapon against the SNP, but either way the party can’t keep dodging that basic question. But, even if the result of the leadership election makes it a bit clearer, it will do the new leader no good to concentrate on it, either.

The overarching problem is that while the SNP remains strong, independence remains the dominant issue. But Labour cannot obtain a strong electoral showing on that topic, partly because of the Tories, and partly because of their own divisions and lack of conviction.

To do well, they need instead to focus on issues which, on historical precedent, go down well with the Scottish electorate: moderately centre-left policies on the economy, welfare, schools, hospitals and so on. Independence is the elephant in the room, but the new Labour leader may still be better off not mentioning it too much.

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