Leader: Who holds winning hand in Labour contest?

Jim Murphy is the favourite. Picture: PA
Jim Murphy is the favourite. Picture: PA
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THIS time next week we will know the identity of the new leader of the Scottish Labour Party, and we will be able to delineate the shape of the Scottish political debate for the months ahead.

We will have a sense of what instincts and ideology will drive Labour as it seeks to work its way back into the affections of its natural supporters who, in the 2007 and 2011 Holyrood elections as well as in the independence referendum, showed themselves more than willing to step outside traditional voting patterns and back the Scottish National Party.

We will know too what kind of personality will be pitched against Nicola Sturgeon as a rival for the post of First Minister, the highest office in the land, running a government that – if Westminster delivers on the Smith Commission’s promises – will soon have new powers to apply to Scotland’s ills and ambitions.

Jim Murphy is the clear front-runner, but Neil Findlay’s strong support on the left of the party means the contest is a real one. Findlay is playing the cards he has with some skill, but would it be wise for Scottish Labour to pick a left-winger as leader? Faced with the widespread support currently enjoyed by the SNP, would a narrow ideological path be the right one? The Nationalists currently enjoy backing that crosses all kinds of boundaries – socioeconomic, geographical, ideological and constitutional, to name but some. To come at the SNP with an offering that appeals to just one sector of the Scottish electorate, as Findlay seems to be doing, would be to take a risk.

Findlay has shown himself an attractive personality in this contest – with a down-to-earth ability to connect with people. This will stand him in good stead regardless of the outcome of the contest on Saturday. The same can be said of Sarah Boyack, one of Donald Dewar’s original cabinet back in 1999, whose post-ministerial career has seen her serve with distinction as a Holyrood committee convenor. With Murphy identified with the New Labour right of the party and Findlay with the trade unionist left, there might have been a way through the middle for Boyack as a centrist candidate to unite the party. Despite the respect with which she is regarded this does not seem to have materialised, if her number of nominations is anything to go by. But Boyack supporters could still play a key role in determining Scottish Labour’s future.

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Ultimately, if Murphy fails to win on the first distribution of ballots, then Boyack is the most likely of the three to have to drop out. The intriguing question then is where her supporters’ second preferences will go. Are her supporters anti-Murphy in their motivation? Perhaps some. There may be some pro-Boyack MSPs who simply do not want an MP to be elected leader. Are there some who would be opposed to a leftward surge for Scottish Labour? Again, there may be some who fall into this category too. The likelihood, however, is that Boyack’s supporters, motivated initially by their personal respect for her, will not be led by internal party considerations but by a sober judgment on who would be most likely to capture the imagination of Labour voters and former Labour voters, in the Westminster and Holyrood contests ahead.

After two Labour leaders – Iain Gray and Johann Lamont – who struggled to make their mark on the public consciousness, they are likely to want a big personality with high recognition factor, and with the energy required for the unforgiving arena of Scottish politics. Logic would suggest it is hard to see them looking past Murphy. But then this is Scottish Labour, with its proven record of putting ancient party squabbles before the party interest, never mind the national interest. As the Miliband v Miliband contest showed, in an electoral college contest front-runners are by no means guaranteed victory. Murphy seems to be Scottish Labour’s best bet. We will find out on Saturday if his party agrees.

No room for unscrupulous landlords

THE concept of a “living wage” is one that is starting to take root in the public consciousness, and also in the outlook of many public and private institutions. The Scottish Parliament recently became the latest employer to ensure everyone who works within its precincts is paid a wage that can provide a decent standard of living. There are more than 60 employers in Scotland now paying a living wage, including Standard Life, RBS and the SECC.

The concept of a “living rent”, however, is still a relatively new one for many people.

This stands in contrast with many countries elsewhere in Europe, where there is less of a culture of homeownership than in the UK. Rent control works in various ways, but is often done by keeping rises within limits set by calculating the average rent across a given geographical area. Keeping rent rises low means people tend to stay in their accommodation for longer, because there is less motivation for landlords to try to turf tenants out in the hope of getting someone who will pay more.

Now, as we report today, the National Union of Students is joining the fight to establish the concept of a “living rent” here in Scotland, as part of the Scottish Government’s consultation on tenancy reform. The consultation contains imaginative proposals – for example, the idea that any notice to quit would have to be linked to how long the tenant had lived in the property. This is the first major review of this area

of law in a quarter of a century, and is a useful opportunity to bring legislation in line with the changing nature of Scottish society.

The British obsession with homeownership is beginning to fade, if for no better reason than the fact that for many low-paid young people getting together the necessary deposit and securing a mortgage seems like an impossible dream. The rise of single-person households – partly caused by an increase in marriage break-up in later life – also mitigates against home ownership.

So renting is going to play a much bigger part in the life of the nation than it has done in the past, with more people never owning their own home. That is a good enough reason to have a system of rents that is fair, equitable and tough on unscrupulous landlords.

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