Johann Lamont did not often find it easy to grab the headlines during her three years as leader of the Scottish Labour party. Often overshadowed by Westminster colleagues, a lack of ‘cut-through’ was regularly identified as the biggest failing of her leadership.
Well, her resignation certainly cut through.
Describing some of her colleagues in London as “dinosaurs” who treat Scottish Labour like a “branch office” clearly helped in that regard. That one of her most damning allegations concerned Ed Miliband sacking her Scottish General Secretary without consulting (or even telling her) added fuel to the story. And so Ms Lamont’s often low-profile leadership of the party in Scotland ended in a blaze of publicity of a most unwelcome kind, as far as many of her colleagues are concerned.
Relations between the Labour group at Holyrood and the Scottish contingent of Labour MPs at Westminster have never been more fractious. With barely 6 months to go until what promises to be the closest UK General Election in forty years (if not ever), and Labour’s key heartlands in Scotland under threat from an insurgent SNP, the timing could hardly be worse.
The party has a great deal of soul-searching to do as it seeks to reassert and redefine its political purpose north of the border. This is no easy task for a party that has never fully come to terms with losing power in Holyrood in 2007, never mind the crushing defeat in 2011 and the shock of seeing Glasgow and other traditional Labour fortresses vote Yes in the referendum. The party needs to show that it ‘gets’ the extent to which the political landscape in Scotland has changed and that it’s claims to be ‘the party of devolution’ can no longer be backward looking, but rather based on a genuine commitment to further devolution, including real devolution of control of the Scottish party to the Scottish leadership.
But before all that, the party needs a new leader in Scotland. The contest will last for six weeks, with Johann Lamont’s successor to be named on Saturday 13 December.
Here we assess the runners and riders.
Jim Murphy MP
The Shadow International Development Secretary is emerging as the front runner. His demotion from Shadow Defence Secretary last year mean he may feel he has a brighter future in Holyrood than Westminster. His ‘100 Days, 100 Towns’ tour of Scotland – and the heckling he got along the way – boosted his profile and showed he has the stomach for a political dogfight. As an MP since 1997, a former Secretary of State for Scotland, and not yet 50 years of age, Murphy may be seen as having an appealing blend of experience and relative youth. However, his Blairite reputation may put him at odds with the more left-wing party grassroots in Scotland and the crucial trade union vote in the electoral college. Question marks also hang over the strength of his relationship with the MSPs he would seek to lead. In this regard he may benefit from forming an alliance with a running mate who would serve as his Deputy in Holyrood between now and 2016.
Verdict: Favourite, but has work to do to win over key voting groups in the leadership contest.
Anas Sarwar MP
The current Deputy Leader of Scottish Labour, now serving as interim leader, has only been an MP since 2010 but has quickly grown his profile in the party. Though initially installed as bookies’ favourite, Sarwar appears to have ruled himself out of a bid for the leadership, indicating that he would prefer to play a unifying role during the selection of a new leader.
Verdict: One to watch for the future.
Gordon Brown MP
Brown staged a spectacular political comeback in the final weeks of the referendum campaign, seizing the more powers agenda for the No campaign and injecting much-needed emotion to the case for the Union. A number of senior figures are now clamouring for him to complete his revival by seeking the leadership of the party in Scotland, believing him to be the only person with the gravitas to both unite the Westminster and Holyrood factions, and put the frighteners on the SNP. However the early noises are that Brown does not want the role and would take some considerable cajoling. A fulltime comeback to domestic frontline politics is unprecedented among modern Prime Ministers, and many may regard it as a backward step for Labour. Nonetheless, if there is a sufficient groundswell of opinion, the former PM may give it at least a second thought.
Verdict: Never say never, but remains a long-shot. But if he stands, he’d almost certainly win.
Douglas Alexander MP
One of the most senior Scottish Labour politicians, Alexander has the public profile and intellectual clout to be seen as a credible party leader. He was one of Labour’s most visible figures throughout the referendum campaign and is a former Secretary of State for Scotland. However, as Shadow Foreign Secretary and General Election Co-ordinator for UK Labour, Alexander is unlikely to decamp to Holyrood.
Verdict: Highly unlikely to seek the job.
Kezia Dugdale MSP
A rising star of Scottish Labour, the Shadow Education Secretary at Holyrood would represent a decisive move towards the next generation. Dugdale is youthful, likeable and articulates a passionate belief in social justice, as well as a willingness to engage with those that voted Yes in the referendum. With a weekly column in the Daily Record and a prominent role in referendum deates, she has a higher profile than many of her Holyrood colleagues. However at 33 and having only been an MSP since 2011, Dugdale’s youth is a weakness as well as a strength. She may struggle to command authority over more seasoned colleagues at Westminster and is likely to be viewed as too inexperienced to seek the office of First Minister.
Verdict: This race may have come too soon for Dugdale, but she is one for the future and a potentially attractive running mate for any candidate from Westminster.
Neil Findlay MSP
Another of the 2011 Holyrood intake to make a rapid ascent to the Shadow Cabinet, Shadow Health Secretary Neil Findlay could well be the candidate of the left. Popular with the trade unions, he would be a tricky opponent for someone like Jim Murphy, but questions marks hang over his low public profile and whether he has the support base among his Parliamentary colleagues.
Verdict: May well stand, but looks an outside bet.
Jenny Marra MSP
Another of the new generation of MSPs, Marra is Shadow Minister for Youth Employment and Shadow Deputy Finance Minister. Like Dugdale she would represent a break with the past, but has perhaps not yet gained a significant public profile.
Verdict: Long shot, but another possible running mate.
Ken Macintosh MSP
The runner-up to Johann Lamont in the 2011 leadership election, long-serving MSP Macintosh may consider a second tilt at the leadership. He is close to Jim Murphy and is one of the few MSPs still standing from the original 1999 intake. May be a contender if the party looks for a transitional leader who can steer them through a difficult period before handing over the reins to a younger successor.
Verdict: Unlikely contender and is likely to back a Murphy candidacy.
Thus far, candidates seem more eager to rule themselves out than rule themselves in, with the noises from Sarwar, Dugdale, Brown and others indicating they will not run. Of the main contenders, Jim Murphy remains the most tellingly silent.
It seems the job could be his for the taking. But leadership elections are seldom as straightforward as they appear.
Photo credit: Scottish Labour Party