THE three contenders battling for control of Scottish Labour held their first leadership debate yesterday, amid warnings that the party could be an “irrelevance” by 2016 unless it gets its act together.
Tom Harris, the only MP standing in the contest, issued the warning when he appeared on a hustings platform with his rivals the Eastwood MSP, Ken Macintosh, and Johann Lamont, Scottish Labour’s deputy leader and the MSP for Glasgow Pollock. Harris, the MP for Glasgow South, stumbled on his lines as he spoke without notes, but he told delegates at a conference in Glasgow that Labour must re-invent itself as the party of aspiration. “I love my country, I love my party and I hate being in opposition,” Harris said.
“By 2016, Scottish Labour will either have re-established itself as the party of aspiration, or it will be an irrelevance.”
Macintosh, whose father was a headmaster on Skye, highlighted his rural roots and tried to persuade delegates that the party has concentrated too much on its traditional heartlands in the urban areas of the Central Belt. Following a woeful election for Labour that saw Liberal Democrat voters in rural areas switch to the SNP, Macintosh said it was important that Labour developed a convincing policy for the countryside.
“We need to start talking more positively about what we are for and less about what we are against,” he said. Macintosh has called for the nationalisation of railways and buses.
Lamont also underlined her heritage, making claim to Hebridean roots. She defended the Union and called on the party to refocus.
Lamont added: “In the last election we lost our way, we lost our confidence, and we lost Scotland. People tell us we need to find a narrative. We don’t need to find a narrative, we need to remember our story.”
The candidates were speaking at the Royal Concert Hall in front of about 500 delegates, who had earlier ratified reforms to the Scottish party that hand more control to the leader and make it permissable for the first time for a Westminster-based politician to lead Labour north of the border.
Delegates also heard from the four politicians vying for the post of deputy leader. Ian Davidson, the Glasgow South West MP, is standing alongside Anas Sarwar, the MP for Glasgow Central, Elaine Murray, the Dumfriesshire MSP, and Lewis Macdonald, the MSP for Aberdeen Central.
The party has set its timetable for the leadership election with nominations opening on Monday and closing on Friday. The new leader will be announced on 17 December.