Sunday, 2 November 2014

Blair Transplant

The Sunday Herald carries a piece today about the extraordinary number of Better Together personnel now working for Jim Murphy in the Scottish Labour leadership contest.

Murphy's campaign launch in Edinburgh yesterday felt like a Blythswood Square re-union, with Alistair Darling leading the applause in the audience, and a throng of former Better Together press officers running errands and liaising with the media.

Blair McDougall's new Twitter picture
Blair McDougall, Better Together's former campaign director and Murphy's old friend, pictured left, even booked the venue.

McDougall, whose employment contract with Better Together ran to the end of the year, has also left the organisation early to help run Murphy's campaign.

One of those concerned says it's simple enough - lots of BT staffers admire Murphy because of the shift he put in during the referendum with his 100 towns in 100 days tour (which was a Better Together rather than a Labour event), and now want to return the favour and help.

But others in the party smell a rat.

Some of those close to fallen leader Johann Lamont reckon Better Together morphed into a leadership vehicle for Murphy a long time ago, and that McDougall and others blatantly promoted the East Renfrewshire MP with an eye to replacing Lamont.

If that's true, it would be the kind of classic New Labour stitch-up that Murphy has been acused of ever since he helped run the notorious Network that picked 'acceptable' Labour candidates in the 1990s.

An associated rumour is that McDougall's reward is to be the post of Scottish Labour general secretary, the party's most powerful official, and a real power behind the throne.

Jim Murphy launches his leadership campaign
So in the press huddle after his launch speech, I asked Murphy who he wanted as general secretary.

A simple enough question, you'd think, given Murphy has stressed that under him there would be no repeat of the sacking of the Scottish general secretary by London, the event which precipitated Lamont's stormy resignation.

Murphy has also emphasised that he'll be doing the hiring and firing.

Yet for a simple question, it yielded a very odd and evasive answer, the kind of answer that usually means a raw nerve has been touched.

You'd almost think McDougall's job had already been neatly stitched up alongside Jim's.

But, then, that would be a very New Labour thing to do, and Jim says those misleading labels are all in the past, so I must be mistaken.

Here's the transcript of the exchange so you can judge for yourself (spot the Freudian slip):

Sunday Herald: Who’s your pick for gen sec?

Jim Murphy: You make it sound like a football team. [Turning to other reporters] Who’s next? I don’t know who the candidates are, mate.

SH: Well Blair McDougall is at a loose end...

JM: Is he? Mmm. Ok. You’re quite fixated by him. It’s quite unnatural. Have you got pictures of him all over your room?

SH: Blair McDougall for general secretary, is that credible?

JM: I’m not getting involved in all that, mate. Now you’re going to write...

SH: You told everybody that you were going to be doing the hiring and firing. So is he going to be a hire for general secretary?

JM: I’m not the Scottish Labour Party leader yet. If I win... if I’m fortunate enough to win this contest, I’ll make those decisions, ok?

SH: Would you like him to be general secretary?

JM: Oh my gosh. I mean, is this my first day in politics that I fall for that sort of question, Tom? It’s not your first day in journalism, so you ought to come up with a better question than that.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The only way is ethics

I reported in July in the Sunday Herald that Roseanna Cunningham had failed to declare a shareholding in a small publishing company in her parliamentary register of interests.

As the shares represented more than 1% of the firm concerned, that suggested a breach of not only MSP rules, but the law, as it is technically an offence to participate in parliamentary business while failing to declare a registrable financial interest.

Not too clever looking for the minister for legal affairs.

To her credit, Ms Cunningham promptly held up her hand, and admitted she should have registered the shares, and got rid of them sharpish.

However the matter is not yet at an end, I can reveal.

Following a complaint from a member of the public, the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland has become involved.

Here's the story:

Tom Gordon

ROSEANNA Cunningham, the SNP minister for legal affairs, is being investigated by the country’s ethics watchdog over an undisclosed shareholding exposed by the Sunday Herald.

Bill Thomson, the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland, recently confirmed he had started inquiries in response to a complaint from a member of the public.

It is understood Mr Thomson ruled the complaint into the secret shares was “admissible” and said he would “continue consideration of the matter”.

He also informed Ms Cunningham of his decision.

The Sunday Herald first revealed in July that Ms Cunningham, who is also minister for community safety, failed to declare shares she had held since 2000 in a left-wing publishing company.
The holding was 50 of the 750 issued shares in Left Review Scotland Ltd, which publishes the Scottish Left Review magazine six times a year.
Since 2006, MSPs have been obliged to declare any shareholding greater than 1% in a company.
However Ms Cunningham failed to declare her 6.7% stake in Holyrood’s register of interests.
Roseanna Cunningham
Although nominally worth £1 each, Scottish Left Review’s 2013 accounts valued the shareholders’ funds at more than £13,000, suggesting Ms Cunningham’s stake was worth almost £900.
Under Section 39 of the 1998 Scotland Act failure to register such a financial interest and then take part in parliamentary proceedings is a criminal offence, punishable on summary conviction to a fine of up to £5000.
The new probe is a blow to the Perthshire MSP as a minister with a legal portfolio, especially given she was an advocate in her past career.
When the Sunday Herald first revealed the share holding, Ms Cunningham, 64, said she had “no recollection” of the shares, but has since admitted she should have registered them.
She has now recorded them in her register of interests saying she bought them for £1 each in 2000 but was “not been actively involved in the company for over 12 years”.
However “on realising these shares constituted a registrable interest I provided the necessary information to the [parliamentary] Clerk”. 
Paul Martin, Labour’s business manager at Holyrood, said: “It is clear that this is viewed as a serious matter. Government ministers need to be held to the highest possible standard and it is correct that this is properly investigated and acted on if there is wrongdoing.
“It would not be good for this government if the minister in charge of legal affairs had failed on basic compliance.”
Ms Cunningham founded Left Review Scotland Ltd with a group of fellow left-wingers including ex-Labour treasurer Bob Thomson and Clydeside trade unionist Jimmy Reid.
Its aim was “to promote and reflect the principles and values of democratic socialism within the Scottish nation through the publishing of a magazine and organisation of discussion groups”.
A spokesman for Ms Cunningham said she had replied to the Commissioner and her letter “set out the circumstances of the situation and the fact that as she did not recall she owned these shares, they went unregistered with Parliament.
“Once they were brought to her attention and she realised they should have been registered, she immediately notified the relevant bodies.
“She has since divested herself of the £50 in shares for nil consideration.”
The office of the Commissioner for Ethical Standards said: “We have received a complaint against Roseanna Cunningham.
“We cannot comment further on this matter as the Commissioner is legally obliged (Section 16 of the Scottish Parliamentary Standards Commissioner Act 2002) not to disclose information about the terms of the complaint.”

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Confident no more?

First Minister's economic advisers continued to discuss currency Plan Bs months after Salmond declared Unionist veto on pound was "bluff", new minutes show

Unnoticed amid the recent rows over a potential currency "Plan B" was the publication last week of the latest minutes from Alex Salmond's Fiscal Commission Working Group (FCWG).

These date from 26 May 2014, but are nevertheless intriguing.

They show that, long after the First Minister had dismissed the Unionist threat to veto a currency union as mere bluff and bluster, his advisers remained busy discussing alternatives.

The minutes state (my emphasis in bold):

The Working Group discussed and reviewed the evidence underpinning their recommendations for a formal monetary union in their First Report.
Following on from their last meeting, there was a continued discussion of currency options in the context of the stated position of UK Ministers and the advice of HMT.

The Working Group also considered the economic assessment of currency unions set out by the Governor of the Bank of  England.

Members discussed the options available to Scotland post-independence and the importance of a stable transition.
The opinion of the Working Group remains that retaining Sterling as part of a formal monetary union is the best option for both the UK and Scotland.

The reference to "transition" was pounced on by Better Together when Salmond used the same phrase last week. Transition to what? they asked.

May's meeting seems to differ from the one which preceeded it on 6 March. 

Back in March, three weeks after George Osborne came to Edinburgh to announce his veto plan, the minutes recorded a confidence that it simply wouldn't happen.

They said: 

Members discussed the currency options outlined in the first report given recent developments and concluded that their economic assessment and central recommendation still held. 
They also discussed the other viable currency and monetary models available for Scotland post-independence.
Members emphasised how they believe that it would be in the interests of the rest of the UK for Scotland to retain stability as part of a formal monetary union. 
In the event of a vote for independence, agreements will be reached which are in the best interests of both Scotland and the rest of the UK. 
Other currency options would be less advantageous for the rest of the UK but viable for Scotland and Members concluded that they are confident that this will ensure an agreement on a shared currency.
As part of their discussions the Working Group covered the potential role of a Scottish Monetary Institute in a formal monetary union. 

But there was no reference to continued confidence in May's minutes, just a repeat of the FCWG's position that a formal currency union would be the best option.

("The opinion of the Working Group remains that retaining Sterling as part of a formal monetary union is the best option for both the UK and Scotland.")

Then again, if they were just as confident, why would they still be discussing Plan Bs?