Ian Swanson: Will hard Labour pay off for hopefuls?

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THE votes are in – and on Saturday, we will learn who is to be the next leader of the Scottish Labour Party.

Former Scottish Secretary Jim ­Murphy has been the favourite since before the contest officially opened – he was being touted as Johann Lamont’s successor even as she declared her determination to carry on, shortly before throwing in the towel and launching her attack on the UK party for treating Scotland like a “branch office”.

Mr Murphy has a high media ­profile and capitalised on it for his round-Scotland tour of “100 towns in 100 days” during the referendum campaign. He has also been one of Scotland’s “big hitters” at West­minster, though he is said to be out of favour with Ed Miliband.

But the election for Scottish leader has proved a closer fight than many might have expected. Labour’s electoral college consists of three distinct groups with an equal say in who leads the party – the parliamentarians, the unions and the membership.

And Lothian MSP Neil Findlay, who is firmly on the left of the party, gained some serious momentum by securing the support of a host of unions. He also ran an energetic ­campaign with a whole series of policy proposals, including a plan for Holyrood to use new borrowing powers to slash repayments on controversial PFI projects.

Mr Murphy, who is seen as a ­Blairite, on the right of the party, also announced various policy positions during the campaign – many of them, such as support for a 50p top tax rate, more left-wing than people might have expected.

That was interpreted by some observers as evidence he was worried and felt the need to appease people inside the party who were sceptical about him.

Others believe Mr Murphy has been campaigning with an eye to the wider political context and the need to take on the SNP.

Either way, Mr Murphy’s position as the favourite suggests a parallel of sorts with Tony Blair’s election to the leadership in 1994.

Many who voted for him did so not because they agreed with his outlook but because they believed he would lead them back into power.

Lothian MSP Sarah Boyack was the first candidate to enter the race, but sadly her candidacy never seemed to take off. She was aiming her appeal not so much at fellow parliamentarians or trade unions but at the ordinary members and she could have been a “compromise” candidate for right and left to unite around.

But even her own supporters accept she will finish in third place – though her supporters’ second preferences could then prove crucial in deciding the final outcome.

Whoever wins will face an uphill struggle in trying to revive Labour’s fortunes. There is little to suggest at the moment that the party has much chance of ousting the SNP at the next Holyrood elections in 2016.

The result of the deputy leadership contest will also be announced on ­Saturday with yet another Lothian MSP, Kezia Dugdale, expected to emerge the winner.

And if Mr Murphy wins, that means she will effectively become the leader of the party at Holyrood until he can get elected as an MSP. In an echo of Nicola Sturgeon’s role while Alex Salmond led the SNP from Westminster, the talented and highly respected Ms Dugdale will take on Ms Sturgeon at the weekly First Minister’s Questions, becoming the new face of Labour in Scotland. That, at least, should give the party a reason to be cheerful.