Andrew Whitaker: Hard-fought Labour election

Former Scottish secretary Jim Murphy is the bookies' favourite to become Scottish Labour leader. Picture: John Devlin
Former Scottish secretary Jim Murphy is the bookies' favourite to become Scottish Labour leader. Picture: John Devlin
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SCOTTISH Labour will have a new leader in place in just over a week, after what could turn out to be a much tighter contest than many commentators had predicted in the immediate days that followed Johann Lamont’s resignation.

Former Scottish secretary Jim Murphy is still the bookies’ favourite and it will still be somewhat of a surprise if his closest rival, the shadow health minister Neil Findlay – the most left-wing of the three candidates – wins through.

But what’s been unusual about what is, after all, Scottish Labour’s fourth election for a leader since the party was ousted from power at Holyrood in 2007 is the interest the contest has sparked from outside Scotland.

Former Labour leader Lord Kinnock took the highly unusual step at the weekend of giving an enthusiastic endorsement of Mr Murphy.

There was also a bad-tempered spat on a social networking site between shadow Northern Ireland secretary Ivan Lewis and the high-profile Labour MP Tom Watson, after the latter said in a newspaper interview that Mr Murphy’s election as leader would be “disastrous” for the party north of the Border.

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Mr Lewis, a supporter of Mr Murphy, suggested that Mr Watson, a former deputy Labour chairman with close links to the Unite union, wanted to manipulate the party’s leadership election in Scotland. The interventions from figures such as Lord Kinnock do invite some historical comparisons with previous bitterly fought contests.

Lord Kinnock at least has some form in this regard, having previously made a high-profile criticism of Ken Livingstone in support of the ill-fated attempt by Tony Blair to prevent the left-wing politician becoming London mayor nearly 15 years ago now.

There was also the controversial running of Welsh Labour’s election of its leader in the newly created assembly at around the same time, when Mr Blair openly spoke out in support of his preferred candidate, Alun Michael. He narrowly defeated Rhodri Morgan, who was himself later go on to lead the party in Wales.

Clearly it would be wrong to compare the current Scottish Labour leadership election to that of the bitter contest for deputy party leader between Tony Benn and Denis Healey at the height of Labour’s internal warfare in 1981, when the former chancellor won by a margin of less than 1 per cent – or “by an eyebrow” as some put it.

However, while Ed Miliband has remained strictly neutral during the contest, it’s worth posing the question as to whether some of the more New Labour-minded figures in the upper echelons of the UK party would see a victory for the left-wing Mr Findlay as a weakening of their own positions.

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