Sunday, 26 October 2014

Who will be Scottish Labour's next leader?

Following Johann Lamont’s resignation, which served to underline the self-created difficulties in which Scottish Labour finds itself, there has been much talk regarding her successor.

The Mirror has reported that Jim Murphy is the frontrunner. The Spectator disagrees, stating that Anas Sarwar is the favourite to succeed Lamont. Gordon Brown has been touted by many as a potential Scottish leader. What is quite obvious about those being touted is, while they undoubtedly possess leadership ability, their potential appointments would also create significant further problems for Labour and would be ignoring the reasons behind the party’s current problems.

As Caron Lindsay wrote for Lib Dem Voice yesterday, “the problems faced by the Labour Party are primarily to do with their sense of entitlement to power and their predilection towards factionalism, personality cults and in-fighting...the failure to understand devolution in its own ranks is mirrored by its failure to get why the Scottish Parliament needs more powers.” Johann Lamont was consistently undermined by Labour’s inability to devolve any kind of power to their leader in Holyrood – if Labour cannot be trusted to treat the Scottish leader as..well, a leader, why should they be trusted in facilitating any significant devolution for Scotland?

The next leader of Scottish Labour has to be someone who can unite the Scottish party and once again give it purpose, a message, and credibility. A few policy ideas wouldn’t go amiss either – the obsession with Alex Salmond really hasn’t proved effective.  But, more significantly, in the current political climate, Scottish Labour’s leader should be someone who understands the difficulties Lamont experienced – of being sidelined by Westminster, of being unable to lead the London-based big-hitters such as Jim Murphy, of being unable to communicate any kind of message without Westminster interference, of having inept advisors who has a flawed grasp of Scottish politics – and who has the courage to at least attempt to deal with them. 

Attempting to rectify the awkward and skewed relationship between Labour’s Holyrood team and its Westminster MPs is unlikely to be remedied by appointing an MP to lead Scottish Labour. Electing an MP to lead would be tantamount to suggesting that Westminster is Labour’s priority, that they have abandoned any serious plans to regain their Holyrood supremacy and that they simply do not “get” devolution. Furthermore, some of the MPs being touted as potential leaders are far more divisive and aggressive than Labour’s MSPs – although admittedly Labour also has a problem with the lack of talent in Edinburgh (an inevitable product of at least a decade of sending its second string to serve in the Scottish Parliament and, when most of them lost their seats in 2011, their third team).

Jim Murphy, according to Labour List, is a figure whose “stock has never been higher”. This is questionable. Johann Lamont was a decent person who regrettably resorted to unnecessary aggression in FMQs, usually to little positive effect. Appointing Murphy as leader, who is by nature far more combative but also notably aggressive and adversarial, may not serve Labour’s cause well. As one of those who appeared to undermine Lamont with astonishing frequency, it would not appear he will have learned the necessary lessons – in spite of his being relative young at 47, he’s a typical old-school Labour MP and may struggle to provide the change of direction that Scottish Labour desperately needs. In spite of being unquestionably bright,  he will inevitably be perceived by his opposition, and Scottish voters, as part of the Westminster establishment. 

Anas Sarwar suffers from some of these difficulties – as will any MP seeking to lead Scottish Labour. He is not, however, the establishment figure Murphy is, and neither does he have the same aggressive character. Sarwar, a former dentist, is less intemperate than Jim Murphy and in spite of being a relative newcomer to parliament (he was first elected in 2010, at the age of 27) has served as the deputy leader of Scottish Labour since 2011 and later in the same year developed a four-point plan to eradicate factionalism within his party and reform it from within.  He also was responsible for co-ordinating Scottish Labour’s referendum campaign. While these latter two initiatives were far from resounding successes, Sarwar’s diagnosis of the problems Labour were facing in 2011 was broadly correct.

Next up for consideration in Gordon Brown – a man who knows how to lose elections. Michael Connarty, the MP for Linlithgow and East Falkirk, told Radio Scotland that “people are talking about Gordon Brown as leader. I think he should lead us into this next election...Gordon has shown he is a Scottish voice, he is a voice for Scotland. We should be talking about Gordon and Gordon alone.” Undoubtedly he showed what he can do in the final days of the referendum campaign, but what signals would be sent out by selecting a 63-year old former Prime Minister with a questionable legacy to lead Scottish Labour? At best, it would look rather desperate. I suspect when Connarty states that “people are talking about Gordon Brown as leader” he means those within the Westminster bubble, for whom Brown – due to his inspirational performances in those final days leading up to the 18th September poll – will forever be seen as the Saviour of the Union. His overall record is less impressive, and his appointment would be a retrograde step. 

Another MP being considered by some as leadership material is Douglas Alexander. Another typecast former minister, and media-declared “big hitter”, like Murphy probably is too establishment and in any case would be unlikely to surrender his role as elections co-ordinator immediately before a crucial General Election. I’m pretty confident he won’t stand – he’s too sensible for that.

Onto our MSPs now...and I genuinely believe there is more talent within Labour’s ranks in Holyrood that even they seem to realise at times. Kezia Dugdale is written off by some for her relative youth (she’s 33) and her lack of experience (she was first elected in 2011) but the same arguments could also be applied to Anas Sarwar. But she is highly regarded and well respected by colleague and opponent alike, and has been one of Labour’s star performers in the Scottish Parliament in her role as Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning. She also has a weekly column in the Daily Record, which usually reads well and underlines her connectedness with the pertinent issues in addition to suggesting she possesses a popular touch Johann Lamont did not. The name recognition her column gives will help her hugely. For me she should be the obvious frontrunner, but whether she appears as such to Labour members is another question altogether. 

Another possible contender is Jenny Marra who, similarly to Dugdale, was also elected for the first time in 2011. She is currently the Shadow Minister for Youth Employment and Shadow Deputy Finance Minister – she has perhaps not caught the attention of the media and politicos in the same way as Dugdale, but she has been reasonably effective and understands how to take on the SNP – or, more honestly, how not to. 

Some people’s money is on Ken McIntosh. There can be no denying his experience – he’s been an MSP since the inception of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. McIntosh’s Holyrood seat covers much of the Jim Murphy’s East Renfrewshire constituency, and the two have had a long political relationship. McIntosh has seen off several strong Conservative challenges at successive elections and with his experience (previously Deputy Convenor of the Standards Committee) he should be popular among members and activists. While close to Murphy and others, he would not suffer from the same “establishment” identification – in fact, in 2011, even Ed Miliband was unable to recall Ken’s name. McIntosh is also not afraid to speak his mind – famously voting against the Labour-Lib Dem executive on the future of A&E units. However, McIntosh’s previous bid for the leadership in 2011 failed, in spite of being supported by Jim Murphy, Kezia Dugdale and Jenny Marra – i.e. individuals who should now fancy their chances of a successful bid themselves – and there would be a suspicion that McIntosh is “yesterday’s man”. His time has come and gone. He may have proved a better leader than either Iain Gray or Johann Lamont had he been given the opportunity, but it is difficult to see how a McIntosh leadership would revitalise the party. Extensive experience in itself does not necessarily make effective leaders. 

There are naturally other MSPs with potential such as Drew Smith and Neil Findlay who may fancy a run for the leadership. It is difficult to see them, however, as serious contenders.

As a Liberal Democrat and a pluralist, it gives me no great sense of satisfaction to see Labour in their present predicament. Scottish democracy requires a strong opposition. That said, Scottish Labour does not deserve to be that opposition if it is unable to put forward a radical plan to move itself forward. Anyone who believes that simply replacing Johann Lamont will result in a change of fortune is likely to be disappointed; Lamont was the symptom of a deep malaise within the Labour Party, not its cause. The real question is not who the next leader will be, but where that leader will take Scottish Labour. 

For me the “right” leadership candidate would be whoever advocates organisationally separating the Scottish party from Westminster, and whoever can explain how and why a Labour administration would be better than one which is SNP-led. For me, that person cannot be Westminster-based, and electing an MP would be tantamount to reinforcing the perception that, in Labour’s mind, Holyrood is simply a branch of Westminster. It would fail to resolve the key difficulties Labour is facing in Scotland, and may in fact reinforce them.

My vote would be for Kezia Dugdale. But I am not a Labour member. Scottish Labour has the chance to elect a leader who has the energy, vision and tactical awareness to create a modern, progressive, social-democratic force in Scottish politics. If that chance is squandered, Labour could spend the next few decades in the political wilderness, struggling for purpose and relevance.


Jennie Kermode said...

What Scotland needs is a strong opposition leader to make sure its parliament functions in a healthy way. What Scottish Labour needs is a leader willing to stand up to the Westminster party. What Labour at the UK level needs is a somebody willing to toe their line. But there's another problem. Whoever actually takes the job will need to be a bit dim. Career-wise, this is so obviously a poisoned chalice that it's hard to imagine anyone truly capable wanting to sip from it.

It seems highly unlikely that anybody will be found who satisfies all these requirements.

Anonymous said...

I doubt if it will be Murphy. Quite frankly, the Scottish parliament couldn't afford his expenses. One name that has been touted in another forum is Margaret Curran and that may be worth a punt. It would certainly explain the final stab in the back. "Et Tu Magrit".