THE battle to succeed Kezia Dugdale as Scottish Labour leader could be a contest between former MP Anas Sarwar and ex-trade union official Richard Leonard.
Other key figures tipped to bid for the post have already ruled themselves out, including Lothian MSP Neil Findlay and deputy leader Alex Rowley.
Ms Dugdale announced late on Tuesday night that she was stepping down with immediate effect after two years in the job. She will remain a Lothian MSP.
Mr Findlay, a strong supporter of UK leader Jeremy Corbyn, had been seen as the most obvious candidate from the left to stand for the leadership. But he issued a statement saying he would not be putting his name forward.
Mr Rowley, who also backed Mr Corbyn but is also close to former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, later ruled himself out too, leaving the left’s focus on Mr Leonard, a former organiser with the GMB union and an ex-Scottish TUC economist, who was elected to Holyrood last year.
Mr Sarwar, who was deputy leader of Scottish Labour for three years up to 2014, is expected to throw his hat in the ring from the “centrist” wing of the party. He was MP for Glasgow Central for five years up to 2015 and became an MSP at last year’s Scottish Parliament elections.
Ms Dugdale said in her resignation letter that the death of her best friend, MND sufferer and campaigner Gordon Aikman, 31, had taught her “how precious and short life was and never to waste a moment”.
And today, fulsome tributes were paid to Ms Dugdale, who became deputy leader when Jim Murphy replaced Johann Lamont as leader in 2014 and then succeeded Mr Murphy when he and all but one of Labour’s Scottish MPs lost their seats in 2015.
East Lothian MSP and former Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray said: “I’m very sorry to see Kez step down but I respect her decision. She has been an excellent leader of Scottish Labour – probably better than she realises herself and certainly better than she is given credit for.” He dismissed suggestions Ms Dugdale had quit under pressure from Corbynistas.
“When Jeremy was standing for leader Kez didn’t support him and that’s a matter of record. But that’s well over a year ago. In the intervening months Kez and Jeremy have shown they are able to work very effectively together, particularly as they did during the general election.”
Labour peer and former Lothian MSP George Foulkes – for whom Ms Dugdale worked as an aide before she became an MSP – also praised her record.
He said: “She stepped in when the party was in great difficulty and she did an excellent job. She brought a new optimism, she has a very infectious smile and she established a very positive way forward.”
He claimed she had been “harried and hounded” by some on the left, including the Scottish Left Review. But he said she had a good relationship with Jeremy Corbyn.
And he insisted Ms Dugdale could make a comeback in the future. “She’s still young, she could come back as leader or in some other prominent role. I hope we have not seen the last of her.”