Andrew Whitaker: Labour can unsettle Sturgeon

Scottish Labour leadership candidates Jim Murphy, Sarah Boyack and Neil Findlay. Picture: PA
Scottish Labour leadership candidates Jim Murphy, Sarah Boyack and Neil Findlay. Picture: PA
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DESPITE being First Minister for little more than a week, it’s indisputable that Nicola Sturgeon has already been one of the most effective performers in set-piece parliamentary debates in the 15 years of devolution.

However, the new First Minister will face a fresh opposite number across the parliamentary dispatch box when Scottish Labour elects its fourth leader during what is now a lengthy period in opposition for the party.

Given the perception her predecessor Alex Salmond, during his time as First Minister, for the most part hammered his Scottish Labour counterparts in the various guises of Wendy Alexander, Iain Gray and Johann Lamont, it’s perhaps worth speculating how the battle between the two main party leaders at Holyrood might shape up.

Jim Murphy – the frontrunner in Scottish Labour’s leadership election – has a reputation as a politician who will take the fight to the Nationalists.

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In the event of Mr Murphy defeating his two rivals – shadow health minister Neil Findlay and Lothian MSP Sarah Boyack – it’s assumed by supporters that the former Scottish Secretary would be Scottish Labour’s salvation should he secure a passage to Holyrood either before or at the 2016 election.

True, he carries himself like a political heavyweight and performs well in the TV studios in debates with SNP big hitters, not to mentions his street speaking tour during the referendum, when he refused to be cowed by assorted hecklers and egg throwers. But it’s possible he will struggle to match Ms Sturgeon in, for him, an entirely new arena where the SNP leader has been a top performer for years.

Former transport minister Ms Boyack is probably someone who would do better than many imagine against Ms Sturgeon in the Scottish Parliament, where her non-confrontational, but issue-driven style may cause some difficulties for the SNP leader.

But it’s Mr Findlay – the most left-wing of the three candidates – who could be the wildcard opponent for the First Minister should he spring a major surprise and defeat Mr Murphy when the leadership election result is declared on 13 December.

It’s fair to say Mr Findlay is one of the few Labour politician to land punches on the SNP in recent years, after almost a decade of the party having its face rubbed in it by the Nationalists.

The relative success Mr Findlay has had in exposing alleged links the Scottish Government had through infrastructure contracts with firms previously involved in blacklisting, as well as his challenge to SNP ministers to use devolved powers to hold an inquiry into the 1984-85 miners strike, suggest that he too could do better than many imagine against Ms Sturgeon.

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