Ian Swanson: Scottish Labour must take time to transform

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MOST voters may still be coming to terms with the dramatic outcome of the general election, working out what they can expect over the next five years.

But in the relentless, high-pressure world of politics, the focus is already shifting to the next battle: the Scottish Parliament elections in just over 11 months’ time.

The SNP, with its unprecedented Westminster success, can look forward to the Holyrood contest with confidence. Unless something unforeseen happens, the party must be on course to repeat its 2011 feat of winning an overall majority of MSPs – despite a system designed to stop any party securing such an outcome.

For Labour, the prospect is much grimmer. Holyrood’s proportional representation system will ensure the party does not have quite the same near-death experience they had in the general election. But it will struggle to improve much on the desperately poor result it achieved last time – winning just 37 seats out of 129, for the party which delivered devolution and had 56 MSPs in the first parliament.

And before it even begins the election campaign, Scottish Labour must choose a new leader.

Jim Murphy originally said he would carry on despite the devastating general election defeat. He had only been in charge since December, and everyone knew he faced an uphill struggle. But although there was probably little anyone in his position could have done to stem the Nationalist tide, the scale of the losses was humiliating. Mr Murphy won a vote of confidence from the party’s executive, but said he would quit anyway. The 17-14 vote suggested there was not really that much confidence at all.

Now Lothian MSP Kezia Dugdale is favourite to take over the helm. She has only been an MSP for four years but became deputy leader of Scottish Labour six months ago.

Ideally she could have hoped for another couple of years or so of experience before being asked to shoulder such a weighty responsibility. But in politics, you often don’t get to choose your timing. Ms Dugdale seems to many the obvious choice and she is willing to step up to the plate.

If she wins, she faces an unenviable task: taking a broken, rejected, demoralised party and trying to revive it as an effective election-fighting force, true to its principles and in tune with ordinary Scots.

Ms Dugdale has undoubted talent and has already become used to taking on the formidable Nicola Sturgeon at First Minister’s Questions every week.

And if she gets the job she will start with a large and invaluable helping of goodwill from within the party.

Ms Dugdale has already signalled she wants change. She has the potential to introduce a fresh style. Her promise to bring “less anger and more good humour” to the role suggests a desire to avoid the temptation of a nagging negativism in dealing with the SNP.

But Scottish Labour’s problems are dire, deep-rooted and date back a long way. The new leader will be the sixth in eight years. Previous post-mortems have failed to bring about the necessary change in attitude or behaviour. But all traces of past complacency and arrogance must now be banished if the party is to survive.

Ms Dugdale has sensibly described the task of restoring Labour fortunes as a “five-year project”. There can be no question of another change of leader after the inevitable defeat at next year’s Holyrood elections.

If Ms Dugdale is elected Scottish Labour leader, the party needs to back her plans to transform the party and give her time to do it.