Ian Swanson: Follow my leader is no longer an option for Labour

As Scottish Labour counts down to its top job contest, Ian Swanson considers the need for the party to redefine itself to voters

THE Labour Party in Scotland will have a new leader by Christmas. But the devastating defeat in May’s Scottish Parliament elections has given it little reason to be feeling festive – or looking forward to a happy new year.

The SNP’s crushing victory has left Labour badly bruised, still dazed and unsure of the way ahead.

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The candidates bidding to take the helm when Iain Gray steps down will be taking part in a hustings on Saturday afternoon, following a special conference in the morning to approve rule changes for the leadership election.

Deputy leader Johann Lamont and education spokesman Ken Macintosh are the favourites for the top job, but MP Tom Harris is also standing.

And in the contest for the deputy leadership, MP Anas Sarwar is tipped to win against fellow Glasgow MP Iain Davidson and MSPs Lewis Macdonald and Elaine Murray.

Saturday’s conference could be a sombre affair. Mr Gray is due to make what will amount to a farewell speech.

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One insider says: “A lot of people are not looking forward to seeing him go. We are losing a really good leader and the question arises whether the people coming behind him are as good. The answer is probably not –and that’s very worrying.”

Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander delivered a damning critique of Labour’s performance earlier this month, claiming it had too often adopted “opposition for its own sake” and failed to say what it would do to tackle Scotland’s social problems.

A senior party figure says the leadership election is an occasion for some party soul searching and is candid about the contrast between this vote and Mr Gray’s election in 2008.

“When we had the last leadership contest, people seriously believed they were electing the next First Minister. They looked at the candidates and asked who would be best to run the country.

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“No one seriously believes we are talking about beating Alex Salmond in 2016. We are a long way from being in a position to consider that.”

Instead, this election will be about the future of the party.

“It’s about political identity and recognising the SNP has occupied a lot of what was traditionally our ground in the centre-left of Scottish politics,” says the senior party figure.

“If you compare the two parties’ policies on a lot of issues there is not a cigarette paper between them. And when Labour seeks to create a difference it makes itself unpopular.

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“This all stems from a long period of making decisions on political expediency rather than first principles. If we go back to those first principles we will find natural ground where we are different from the SNP on issues like the redistribution of wealth.”

However, the SNP’s promised referendum on independence remains the dominant issue in Scottish politics, and Labour’s leadership hopefuls will be quizzed on their position on “devo max” and how they put the positive case for the Union. Relations between Labour at Holyrood and at Westminster are a key issue, hence the move to have an MSP as leader and MP as deputy. Lothians MSP Sarah Boyack and former Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy have been leading an internal party review, which will publish further findings next month. Meanwhile, the new Shadow Scottish Secretary, former MSP Margaret Curran, is underlining Westminster’s continuing importance to Scotland by bringing together the 13 Scottish MPs with shadow jobs as “Team Scotland”.

Party members, parliamentarians and affiliated groups – mainly trade unions – each have one third of the votes in the leadership election.

The result will be announced on December 17.