Andrew Whitaker: Leader contest does Labour a favour

Kezia Dugdale has presented herself as the face of change for a new generation. Picture: Toby Williams
Kezia Dugdale has presented herself as the face of change for a new generation. Picture: Toby Williams
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Kezia Dugdale looks set to trounce Ken Macintosh in the race, but his standing is a good thing, writes Andrew Whitaker

THERE seems to be no respite for Scottish Labour, with the party gripped by crisis after crisis in the aftermath of its near wipeout north of the Border in this month’s general election.

Brown’s ‘coronation’ was not a great move given what followed

Whether it’s the drama that saw Jim Murphy resign after narrowly surviving a vote of no confidence at the party’s ruling body, or the allegations of bullying by one of his would-be successors, Ken Macintosh, it’s a total wreckage for Scottish Labour.

Kezia Dugdale is the clear favourite to take over from Murphy, with the overwhelming support of Labour MSPs and, by the looks of things, the party’s rank and file membership in Scotland.

Macintosh’s candidacy to succeed Murphy surprised many, given his defeat by Johann Lamont in his last attempt to lead the party in 2011.

Despite his strong showing in Scottish Labour’s leadership election in 2011, when he won the majority of votes among individual members, Macintosh would face an uphill battle to defeat Dugdale, who is seen as a fresh face for the party.

And whatever qualities the Eastwood MSP has, it would be a huge challenge for him to present hielf as a First Minister-in-waiting against a rampant SNP in next year’s Holyrood elections.

But whatever the rights and wrongs of Macintosh’s claims that his supporters are being discouraged from backing him by those in the upper echelons of the party, the MSP may actually be doing Scottish Labour a service by standing in any leadership election.

Having an unopposed leadership contest would leave Labour open to SNP attacks about a lack of talent in its ranks, and while it was in completely different circumstances when the party was in power at UK level, Gordon Brown’s “coronation” in 2007 was – on reflection – not a great move given what has happened in the years that followed.

So in a leadership election, Dugdale and Macintosh will probably be the only candidates, with the former already in a strong position following the early declaration of overwhelming parliamentary support.

An endorsement in a leadership ballot from party members, who would have had the chance to question and debate with the candidates about where Scottish Labour goes from here and how it can be prevented from sleepwalking into oblivion, would at least give the winner democratic legitimacy.

Scottish Labour has yet to finally decide on the timetable and process for the contest to succeed Murphy, who will almost certainly recommend that the ballot be conducted on a one member, one vote (OMOV) basis in a report he is to submit to the party’s ruling body in his final act as leader next month.

Given that Labour at UK level is electing Ed Miliband’s successor by OMOV, it’s unlikely that Scottish Labour will adopt a different approach, and despite Macintosh’s strong showing among individual members in 2011, such a system is likely to favour someone with a strong media profile like Dugdale, who already leads for Labour at First Minister’s Questions.

Dugdale has so far been able to portray herself as a candidate who represents a desire for change from a new generation, who is relatively untainted by the series of humiliating defeats suffered by Scottish Labour. At the very least, no-one is attempting to lay any of the blame for Scottish Labour’s dire predicament at Dugdale’s door.

Of course, Macintosh could spring a surprise result, but if Dugdale is elected Scottish Labour’s next leader she would take over an utterly demoralised party that is staring down the barrel at a third successive Holyrood election defeat at the hands of the SNP.

With less than a year to go until polling day, it appears unlikely that the SNP will be ousted from power, with the party enjoying much greater popular support and holding an overall majority in a parliament specifically created to guard against such an outcome.

The ground Labour has to make up, and the strength of the nationalists fresh from winning 56 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster constituencies, make another SNP victory almost inevitable.

But it’s not ruled out that Dugdale could make a dent in SNP support and perhaps even deprive the party of an overall majority – something that should become Labour’s unofficial goal between now and election day.

Labour making modest gains from the SNP could see Nicola Sturgeon’s party lose its overall majority and the ability to gets its way on everything, including a second independence referendum.

As things stand, the SNP look unstoppable, but Holyrood’s proportional representation system for electing its members mean the prospect of the nationalists taking almost all the seats, as the party did on 7 May, is next to impossible.

It’s almost unheard of for a government to remain in as strong a position and stay as popular as the SNP after the thick end of a decade in power.

By the late 1980s, after a similar time in office, the Tories were despised by a large section of the electorate desperate to evict the party from office due to polices such as the poll tax and the marketisation of public services.

Also, by the mid-2000s, Tony Blair’s New Labour project had largely run its course, with the man who would become his party’s longest-serving Prime Minister badly damaged by controversies surrounding the Iraq war and his perceived closeness to the US administration of George W Bush.

But while Nicola Sturgeon looks difficult to topple, Labour could still be in with a chance. The ultra-austerity coming from the new Tory government will inevitably mean cuts are passed on to Holyrood.

A newly elected young and dynamic Labour leader at Holyrood who adopts a harder anti-austerity line could potentially call out the SNP if the nationalists opted to simply pass on Westminster cuts to key areas of provision. That austerity, combined with a potential loss of an overall majority at Holyrood, could make the SNP vulnerable.

However, with some commentators suggesting Labour will be lucky to win a single constituency seat and instead will have to rely on the list section to get MSPs elected, there could be a considerable distance for the party to travel on the road to recovery.