Lesley Riddoch: Sarah Boyack is Labour’s best bet

A CONSENSUS has emerged around Jim Murphy for the Scottish leadership but he’s not a shoo-in, writes Lesley Riddoch.

A CONSENSUS has emerged around Jim Murphy for the Scottish leadership but he’s not a shoo-in, writes Lesley Riddoch.

Who should become the next Scottish Labour leader and do Yes campaigners have anything relevant to say? I can visualise the (more polite) comments.

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Normally party elections are an internal matter for party members. But for Labour these are not normal days. Political commentators overdo phrases like “a party in its death throes” facing a “make or break decision.” But after polls suggesting that Labour has only 17 per cent support in its ex-heartlands, and that most Scots would vote yes in a rerun of the independence referendum – albeit by a slender margin – apocryphal descriptions are completely apt.

What happens next matters massively and not just for Scottish Labour. Scots need a strong voice to hold the SNP to account Not a rudderless rump of MSPs wondering, yet again, if their leadership resides in the market-driven, immigrant-fearing, right wing environment of London or the disparate Scottish political culture.

And yet a consensus already seems to have emerged. Jim Murphy is the man. Even his critics concede he is experienced, plausible, good on TV, determined and aspirational. In 2008 he observed that “Labour’s reticence about the symbols and emotion of patriotism has enabled the SNP superficially to conflate patriotism and separatism.” So perhaps he will surprise everyone by wearing the kilt, quoting the Bard and flying the Saltire. Occasionally.

In the past such unexpected innovation might be all one would ask of a Scottish Labour leader. But this is not the past. The new leader needs to demonstrate he is on the same wavelength as Labour’s lost voters. From his past track record, Murphy isn’t.

Firstly, the MP for Eastwood voted for war in Iraq, sits on the right wing of Labour politics and was a prominent Blairite. Those divisions could be dismissed as old hat. Yet they created the fault lines which first detached Labour from its “natural constituency” in Scotland and allowed the SNP to outflank Labour on the left.

Secondly, Murphy chose London not Holyrood for his political career. So did Alex Salmond, but since his purpose in politics was to remove London influence from Scottish life, most voters knew where his loyalties lay. Not so with Jim.

Thirdly, he was named by Michael Connarty MP as part of the network that bullied Johann Lamont out of office – so he is widely thought to be one of the “dinosaurs” if not the very T-Rex itself. If there is any truth to Lamont’s assertions, backed up within days by Jack McConnell, Henry McLeish, Malcolm Chisholm and Andy Kerr, then any candidate approved by Ed Miliband also views Scotland as a branch office. If Murphy is Miliband’s man the Labour leader has backed a candidate to lead a Scottish party he chose not to join and cannot speak in. What is that saying to Scots?

Ah but his deputy candidate can. And he/she will probably have a different and complementary profile. It’s argued that Kezia Dugdale and Jenny Marra are young, capable, female MSPs who could hold their own in Holyrood as effectively as Nicola Sturgeon did while Alex Salmond was still an MP. But if that’s true, why could Labour not have made the leap of faith and generation to persuade one of them to stand as leader now?

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Obviously both are relatively inexperienced. But when is “experience” a boon and when is it a millstone? And what happens if a relatively left wing, open-minded deputy starts deviating from leader Murphy’s script or (worse) develops that stiff, zipped up the back look acquired by so many previous Scottish Labour leaders when a question arises that hasn’t been considered by their London handlers?

In many ways Jim Murphy is like a pint of his namesake. Substantial, popular and soothing. But for a party with serious dependency issues he is a hair of the dog, another Big Man fae Sooth, a silver-tongued temptation too far.

So far media coverage has focused exclusively on Jim Murphy. There are two other candidates. Neil Findlay has support from the trade unions. Sarah Boyack is a calm, capable woman who has endured the last tumultuous years of Labour’s decline without developing the seething resentment of the SNP that characterises other Labour figures.

In other words, there is a real contest for the Scottish Labour leadership. It isn’t a shoo-in, no matter how much Murphy appeals to the almost exclusively male political press corps.

Murphy’s subtext here is that Johann Lamont got pushed about because she was too weak to fight her corner with London Labour bruisers. The suggestion is that it’s easier to take on London if you are already part of that gang by outlook, experience and parliamentary base. Those unspoken assertions may be correct. They are also irrelevant.

What progressive Scots are screaming at the Labour Party is that no-one wants London running Scotland’s affairs anymore. According to the weekend YouGov/Times poll only 22 per cent of Labour supporters believe the party represents their interests well and 65 per cent say it represents them badly. The ability to play hardball with Ed Miliband is not an important skill if he really accepts the Scottish party must be independent. Clearly he still doesn’t. Of course, the Scottish party needs strong leadership. But how do we define strength?

Another subtext of recent comments is that a relatively low key, “home grown” candidate like Sarah Boyack probably can’t stand the heat of debate with “giant killer” Nicola Sturgeon who has already demolished two Scottish Secretaries in TV debates. Actually, what may be needed now is a Labour leader who doesn’t generate unnecessary heat, who isn’t trying to pick fights over nothing, whose speeches, thoughts and actions are not constructed primarily to facilitate her own career as future First Minister.

Sarah Boyack has an instinct for co-operation and consensus building and progressive ideas about energy, transport and the environment. That’s what Labour needs right now. The chance to regroup, find its moral core, put clear bluer water between Holyrood and Westminster and heal a little before next year’s General Election.

As blogger Kate Higgins puts it: “Scottish Labour needs someone who can lead their own people by following the Scottish people.” Precisely.