Tom Peterkin: Personality key in Labour decision

Neil Findlay is one of the three leadership candidates. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Neil Findlay is one of the three leadership candidates. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

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WHEN Johann Lamont resigned­ as Scottish Labour leader, lambasting the party’s London leadership, there wasn’t exactly a stampede of politicians rushing to replace her.

For four days after her departure in October, there was a vacuum at the top of the party. It appeared no-one was prepared to put their name forward to succeed her.

It became a standing joke that every time a journalist rang up a Labour politician, there was no attempt at small talk. The politician’s unprompted opening gambit was always: “No, I’m not standing.”

Morale was so low that for a while it appeared that becoming the leader of Scottish Labour was the job that nobody wanted.

Eventually it was Sarah Boyack, the long-standing MSP and daughter of a famous home rule campaigner, who did the decent thing and decided to stand for the post.

Boyack’s emergence ended an embarrassing and rudderless hiatus. It also had the effect of flushing out the big beast – Jim Murphy, the East Renfrewshire MP and member of Labour’s shadow cabinet at Westminster.

A third challenger threw his hat into the ring to add a bit of spice to the contest. Of the three, Neil Findlay is the least experienced candidate. But the former brick layer and secondary school teacher has proved to be an energetic and thoughtful left-winger who has impressed since he entered Holyrood in 2011.

On Wednesday, the final votes will be cast in a leadership contest, which is unquestionably the most important in the Scottish party’s modern history. The votes being cast by Labour members, trade unionists and elected representatives will define the party’s future.

They will determine whether the party chooses someone who is capable of leading the party from an ebb that is so low that it almost beggars belief that it was on the winning side during the referendum.

With Labour having lost two Scottish elections on the trot, in 2007 and 2011, leaking votes to a highly motivated SNP in its heartlands, the new leader’s task is Herculean. He or she will be all too aware that they will be the fifth leader in less than eight years, with Jack McConnell, Wendy Alexander, Iain Gray and Johann Lamont having bitten the dust.

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Murphy is the favourite to be declared as the winner on Saturday when the votes are counted. To his supporters, anything other than a Murphy victory is hardly worth contemplating. To them, he is the only one of the three with the stature to turn round the party.

During the referendum there had been suggestions that Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown might stand for Holyrood so that they could devote the rest of their political lives to taking on the SNP. With both men ruling that out, Murphy’s acolytes think their man is the only option.

“If Jim doesn’t get it, I think the party will have made a huge mistake. If we don’t elect him, I don’t know where we will end up,” said one Labour MSP yesterday.

“He has an energy and enthusiasm. It is difficult to describe the quality he has, but he is the sort of person that people will sit and listen to. He has got a profile that very few other people enjoy. When it comes to the other colleagues contesting this, it is a case of ‘who are they?’ People know Jim Murphy.”

The vegetarian, teetotal, fanatical Celtic-supporting Blairite, who captains the Westminster parliamentary football team, may be the bookies’ favourite but the result is far from a foregone conclusion.

Labour’s idiosyncratic method of choosing its leaders has seen to that. To win, the successful candidate must come out on top in an electoral college with three separate components, a system which increases the odds of an upset.

Each accounts for one third of the overall vote. Labour’s 80 elected members (38 MSPs, 40 MPs and two MEPs) make up the first section. The second is made up of Labour’s 20,000 or so Scottish members, who have a vote each.

The third section involves tens of thousands of people and takes in members of trade unions who are affiliated to Labour, plus those in other organisations with links to Labour such as the Fabians, the Socialist Health Association and the Co-operative Party.

With the system weighted heavily towards the 80 elected politicians who will determine the outcome of one third of the vote, it is important to secure the support of immediate colleagues in order to win.

In this part of the contest, Murphy is faring well. Although a good few politicians have not made their preferences public, Murphy’s supporters reckon he has secured two thirds of their support.

So far so good for the East Renfrewshire MP, who also claims to have the edge when it comes to the members’ votes. Telephone canvassing by his supporters suggests that Murphy is ahead of Boyack and Findlay.

“Amongst the politicians in the three parliaments, I’m ahead. I’ve a decent lead among the politicians, a decent lead among the party members, I think,” Murphy said yesterday.

“Then obviously there’s the trade union members and we don’t know, we genuinely don’t know,” he added.

As Murphy suggested, it is the trade union vote which could prove to be the most fertile ground when it comes to dislodging the favourite. The system asks voters to rank the candidates 1, 2 or 3 in order of preference. The proportion of first preference votes for each candidate is calculated across the three categories. If after that the leader has not accumulated 50 per cent of the vote, the bottom candidate drops out and his or her second preference votes come into play. If, as expected, Boyack is trailing after the first round, and neither Murphy nor Findlay reach the 50 per cent threshold, much will depend on who her supporters ranked second.

So if Boyack supporters tend to be anti-Murphy, their contribution will be crucial.

To find proof of the form book being ripped up, one need look no further than David Miliband’s defeat by his brother Ed in a similar contest courtesy of the unions.

With strong left-wing credentials, Findlay is likely to score strongly among an idealistic section of the electorate who will be unimpressed by Murphy’s Blairite pragmatism and his Commons vote in favour of the Iraq war.

Although there is no union block vote (each member’s vote counts individually), Findlay is the candidate with the most union endorsements.

Worryingly for Murphy, ASLEF, CWU, GMB, the Musicians’ Union, NUM Scotland, SHA Scotland, TSSA, UCATT, Unison and Unite have declared for Findlay, an ebullient politician who shares Murphy’s love of sport and includes “socialising (going for a pint)” in his list of hobbies.

“A lot of people expected this to be a coronation, but its going to be a photo finish,” Findlay noted wryly yesterday.

Murphy has secured the support of the Community Union, USDAW and the affiliated organisations Scottish Labour Students and Scottish Young Labour. While the Scottish Co-operative Party has declared its allegiance to Boyack.

For some, there has been a question over Murphy’s commitment to Scotland. As a MP and shadow cabinet member with a hunger for power, it had previously been assumed that Murphy’s ambitions lay at Westminster. With Ed Miliband struggling to convince voters, Murphy may even have sensed that he might one day lead the UK party.

But with the party in Scotland struggling and having fought a good referendum dodging egg throwers and touring Scotland, Murphy has answered the call.

Should he win, Murphy faces another test – actually making it to Holyrood. Forcing a by-election is one option. But with a resurgent SNP prepared to throw everything at any seat Murphy contested, it is a high risk strategy.

Murphy’s advisers are exploring the possibility of Labour engineering a job swap with a sitting MSP. That would involve the MSP standing in East Renfrewshire in May’s general election. Murphy would then stand in the Holyrood seat vacated by the MSP in a Scottish Parliamentary by-election held on the same day as the general election. That approach would at least provide Murphy with some cover by making it impossible for the SNP to devote all their energies to ousting him.

Another possibility is for Murphy to wait until the 2016 Scottish election, an option that would inevitably lead to the SNP denouncing him as a London-based politician. Whatever method Murphy chooses, his tenure will start with him unable to take on Nicola Sturgeon at First Minister’s Questions.

That duty is likely to fall to Kezia Dugdale, the promising young MSP who is front-runner in the race for the deputy leadership. Dugdale’s only challenger is Katy Clark, the left-wing MP for North Ayrshire and Arran, who, like Findlay, has been garnering trade union support.

For the last few weeks, the candidates have been taking part in hustings. There Findlay has fought for his left-wing agenda, speaking up for workers’ rights, renationalising the railways, scrapping Trident and buying back Private Finance Initiative contracts.

Boyack, a former Labour cabinet minister whose father Jim was a key figure in Labour’s fight for a Scottish Parliament, has been promoting her “100 ideas for a new Scotland”.

To Boyack, this contest has been a chance for a vigorous discussion on policy that contrasts with Sturgeon’s unchallenged rise to the top of the SNP.

“This is a huge opportunity to lead the agenda,” she said. “With the SNP having a coronation there was a real opportunity for a lively, radical debate and look at a new set of policy ideas post referendum.”

Murphy has pitched un-ashamedly to Middle Scotland saying he wants a country for the “prosperous” as well as the poor.

Murphy’s instinct to try and appeal to all has seen this rhetoric combined with a commitment to introduce a 50 per cent tax rate for people in Scotland earning more than £150,000 per year.

There have also been commitments to tackle mental health as well as his radical plans to tackle failing schools, but one of the most important messages he is trying to sell is that he will be his own man. That was evident when he was asked if he had consulted Ed Miliband and Ed Balls about his commitment to raise the top rate of tax. “They can read it in the papers like everyone else,” Murphy replied, bullishly.

To succeed against the SNP, he knows he must plough his own furrow in Scotland. With Lamont complaining that London treated the Scottish party like a “branch office” when she departed, Murphy cannot afford to give any impression that he is beholden to London.

Despite talk about ideas, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that in the end, this contest is more about personality than ideology. Voters will be supporting the candidate they believe is most likely to lead Labour back from the abyss.

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