Gerry Hassan: For Labour, life after Wendy should begin with an apology

THE past fortnight has been one of the most confusing and comical the Scottish Labour Party has ever seen. The competence of Wendy Alexander and Gordon Brown has been questioned, as has their ability to have a conversation where they understand each other.

Fundamental questions have begun to be asked about the purpose, philosophy and point of Scottish Labour. The party now faces the unavoidable truth that it really has to address some of the difficult issues it chose to duck last year when it decided to avoid a leadership contest and crown Ms Alexander leader.

The events of the past fortnight have made her a lame duck. Her period as leader of Scottish Labour in Holyrood is clearly marked, and it is only a matter of time before she has to go. Alexander is not a politician, but a technocratic policy wonk with no real political touch or antenna, as the past two weeks have shown.

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Anyone with a grasp of political possibilities would have known that a Gordon Brown holding out against a popular Tory campaign for a referendum on the Lisbon treaty was never going to support one on Scottish independence, and thus open up a flank of attack to the Tories for inconsistency. It never dawned on Ms Alexander.

Whether it is next week or next year, her days as Scottish Labour leader are numbered, so, in recognition of that, here is my short guide for the party post-Wendy.

First, it has to embrace what it has so far consciously avoided: having a democratic contest for the party's leadership. Scottish Labour has had four Holyrood leaders since 1999 and not one of them has had the backing of party members. Alexander's limitations, which were widely known, even to her supporters, would have been examined and scrutinised if the party had had a contest a year ago, perhaps saving Labour from some of its current problems.

Second, a leadership contest has to be the place for starting a wider debate about the purpose of the party and its values. If British Labour is suffering from exhaustion after 11 years in office, Scottish Labour is close to a state of collapse after being the leading party for 50 years.

In the past decade, the party has become a strange amalgam of some of the worst elements of "New Labour" and "Old Labour". Thus, Andy Kerr mortgaged our futures to the tune of 4,500 per person on PPP schemes, while Cathy Jamieson still thinks of herself as a left-winger, despite privatising prisons as a minister – surely one step too far for anyone to the left of Pinochet.

The party has to address what it means to be a social democratic party when the SNP has effectively stolen its clothes. The party needs to come to terms with the SNP, which will be a challenge when many Labour Party members have a set of gut prejudices about the Nationalists that disfigure and destabilise their judgment about them.

Labour MSPs and MPs still use over-the-top language and phrases about the Nats, such as "the politics of grudge and grievance", and last week, Jackie Baillie dredged up the fact that 30 years ago, the SNP voted to bring down the Callaghan government.

Political parties always stereotype their opponents, but, to be effective, they have to have some basis in reality.

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Think of the Tories under Thatcher and Major as "the uncaring party" or Labour in the wake of the "winter of discontent" as being seen in the pocket of trade union militants. It took decades for them to live down these images. Scottish Labour's caricature of the SNP comes across like a deranged elderly relative who cannot stop themselves going on about some long forgotten war in which they fought. Labour needs to understand what the rest of us have known for decades. The SNP is not some illegitimate political tradition, but a credible, mainstream part of Scottish political life.

Part of Ms Alexander's agenda diagnosed some of the right solutions: Scottish Labour needs more autonomy and the Holyrood leader needs to be in charge of the whole party. Paradoxically, she was also right that the party needs to, in Labour's words, place itself on the side of the people on the independence question. However, Ms Alexander combined this intellectual understanding of the case for change with a complete lack of understanding of how to make the political case for this, and the wider arguments it involved.

Like every senior Scottish leader of the past two decades, Ms Alexander saw party democracy as expedient to her getting her own way. Labour modernisers north of the Border have consistently fallen for the argument they could capture and use the party via undemocratic means for the greater good, not realising they had become tainted in the process.

Scottish Labour needs to make peace with the Nats – accept their right and rationale to be part of the mainstream – to be able to engage them in a relevant debate contesting polices and visions. More than that, Labour needs to make peace with wider Scotland.

In its 50-year dominance, Labour ran Scotland with some quite unattractive and undemocratic methods. The party needs to come to terms with the reality that the "old" ways and the "new" modernising ways will no longer do.

Scotland has become a more confident, diverse society and a place that sees itself as more of a nation than ever before, and it expects its government, national politicians and leaders in public life to reflect this sea change. Alex Salmond has, in a way, been both a product of this change and aided it, and it is difficult to imagine the office of the First Minister ever going back to the dismal, minimalist politics of Jack McConnell.

Scottish Labour has an uphill struggle ahead of it. But post-Wendy, it would be a start if it can break from the delusions and old battle hymns of the past few years. The first steps should involve a degree of contrition and apology for the way Labour ran Scotland for so long and took people for granted, and then an acceptance and embracing of the renewing potential of democratic debate.

• Gerry Hassan is a writer, broadcaster and commentator.