Andrew Whitaker: Dugdale has done – just – enough

Kezia Dugdale is strong favourite to win Scottish Labour leadership vote but Ken Macintosh has shone. Picture: Andrew O'Brien
Kezia Dugdale is strong favourite to win Scottish Labour leadership vote but Ken Macintosh has shone. Picture: Andrew O'Brien
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But, contrary to fears, Macintosh made campaign interesting and was a plus for Labour, writes Andrew Whitaker

KEN Macintosh, the self-styled “change candidate” and underdog in Scottish Labour’s leadership election, appears to be confident he will pull off a surprise win this Saturday when the result of the contest is declared.

Of course no serious candidate in any such election would publicly concede defeat just days before the result is announced, although it would confound most observers if Kezia Dugdale did not make it over the victory line.

Dugdale has been one of Scottish Labour’s few “good news” stories in recent years, with assured performances at Holyrood since her election in 2011 as a Lothians MSP, including at First Minister’s questions when she deputised for Jim Murphy.

Her leadership campaign has not exactly been inspiring but it’s been good enough, and that combined with her solid enough performance as deputy leader in the first half of this year make it difficult to see any reason why she does not deserve the top job.

It had been hoped by some in Scottish Labour that the party could have an uncontested leadership election and that Dugdale could just simply quietly step into the role.

In the aftermath of Scottish Labour’s disastrous Westminster result there was little appetite for a protracted leadership contest and there were some quiet groans from Labour figures when Macintosh made it plain he would be a candidate just weeks after May’s election.

However, Macintosh has to an extent, against the odds, had a pretty good leadership contest after some initial early dropped balls when he said on TV that Dugdale was “not experienced enough” to lead the party – something that came across as unintentionally patronising.

While it would be overstating the case to say Macintosh has livened up the contest in the way Jeremy Corbyn has done in the UK Labour leadership election, his candidature has been worthwhile. The call on Labour to make a clear anti-austerity pitch rather than sign up to a mitigated version of the cuts is a departure for Macintosh who was always seen as being close politically to the Blairite-orientated Jim Murphy and certainly not a left winger – which he is not, in fairness.

There has also been some fairly thoughtful interventions from Macintosh such as a suggestion that some non-violent convicted prisoners could be allowed to vote in elections as part of the rehabilitation process and as a reward for good behaviour – an issue that most mainstream politicians won’t touch with a barge pole.

The contest will not exactly go down in the party’s history as one of the most captivating, but Macintosh standing has at least forced those vying for the post to set out their stall.

However, for all the effort of the Macintosh campaign, which has probably been as good as Dugdale’s, Scottish Labour members will know they do not have the luxury of getting the choice in this contest wrong, with the next Scottish Parliament election just months away.

Scottish Labour needs a steady pair of hands to at least lead some sort of fightback against the SNP and keep losses to a minimum in May 2016.

Despite emerging as a much more effective politician than many inside and outside Labour had viewed him, there may still be a fear that Macintosh would struggle in the role of leader on the election campaign trail and at First Minister’s questions in a way that perhaps Iain Gray appeared to at times – despite his many qualities as a good Holyrood frontbencher.

Dugdale has already shown herself capable of going head-to-head with the SNP leadership, even if she still has some way to go before she’s matching Nicola Sturgeon pound-for-pound politically.

But there will be many in Labour with a gut feeling that Dugdale is less likely to stumble than Macintosh in the pressure cooker atmosphere of an election campaign, particularly one in which it looks like the party is already on a hiding to nothing.

Macintosh deserves a good vote when the results are declared this Saturday in Stirling. A heavy defeat would be hard on a politician who has run a genuinely social-justice orientated campaign.

But when a push comes to a shove there may not be enough in the locker from Macintosh and it would probably be a further blow for Labour if Dugdale is not elected principally because she’s a better politician and similar in style to the UK Labour deputy leadership candidate Stella Creasy – widely viewed as one of the party’s most accomplished campaigners.

To say that the winner of Scottish Labour’s contest is inheriting a poisoned chalice does not even cover the severity of the situation.

The party is firmly stuck in the electoral wilderness in a way UK Labour is not yet and may still avoid depending on the way things play out in the weeks and months ahead.

It’s been said time after time that next year’s election represents a mountain to climb for Scottish Labour, but the electoral battle with a rampant SNP is just a part of the story.

Scottish Labour’s new leader faces a herculean task to reform and remake a demoralised and battered party in the much longer term.

Jim Murphy’s final act as Scottish Labour leader was to push through agreement on reforms to the way the party selects its candidates in a bid to inject more talent on to the Holyrood benches and root out what some have suggested is dead wood. It’s likely that such reforms will begin to take shape quickly as there is little mood within the party’s ranks for large scale resistance to a newly elected leader in times of crisis.

While the SNP’s top performing politicians are in truth only limited to a handful at Holyrood, the Nationalists are not attempting to recover from years of decline in the same way as Labour.

Turning around a situation and making Scottish Labour first of all into a formidable opposition to take on an SNP government, that has a highly questionable record on the NHS and colleges and generally gets away with far too much, is the political equivalent of pulling a rabbit out of hat.

However, Dugdale has probably done enough in her time at Holyrood to make her best equipped to try.