Analysis: Contenders ready - Labour set for new leadership battle

The well-oiled machine that is Scottish Labour’s leadership election process is once again back in action.

Scottish Labour leadership contender Anas Sarwar.

From tomorrow nominations will open, but only two people have thrown their hats into the ring to replace Richard Leonard: the man he defeated for the job in 2017, Anas Sarwar, and Monica Lennon, the woman who took over Sarwar’s former brief as party health spokesperson.

The leadership campaign is on a tight timescale, with the winner announced on February 27, as a result of fast-approaching Holyrood elections. But will either of them be able to transform the electoral chances of the party which was once the dominant force in Scottish politics until the advent of devolution?

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Scottish Labour leadership contender Monica Lennon.

Indeed since the Scottish Parliament came into existence there have been nine Scottish Labour leaders – and a number of interims thrown in for good measure – as the party has cast about for the right person to prove its belief that devolution works for the people of Scotland and that having Labour in charge at Holyrood is a better future for the country than independence.

Yet it’s the constitutional question, one which many in the party had hoped to end with the creation of Holyrood, that has stymied Labour since it lost its grip on power in 2007. It has since slid from party of government to third place in the Scottish Parliament, has seen its representation at Westminster reduced to one MP, and lost all its MEPs at last years’ Euro elections. It’s not putting too fine a point on it to say Scottish Labour is not in a good place.

So will the election of Sarwar or Lennon make any difference at all?

Certainly it’s unlikely that either can stop the SNP winning in May’s election. However both potentially have a higher recognition factor with the Scottish electorate than Richard Leonard achieved in three years, and if they campaign smart the SNP lead could be slightly dented. A recent poll also suggested Labour could leapfrog the Tories into second place, becoming the official opposition again.

And once there, opinions and arguments are far more amplified than they can be when sitting third behind Nicola Sturgeon and Ruth Davidson.

For either candidate then, their eyes will be on the prize of the elections beyond May, and eating into the SNP dominance across the board. But to do that, they first have to unite the warring factions within their own ranks; factions which will become all too obvious across the next month as they ignore the looming parliamentary elections which should be forcing them to play nice.

Leonard said he wanted the party to unite three years ago, but it didn’t happen as he could never shake the idea that those to the right of him were seeking to undermine him from the get-go. He couldn’t shake it, because those closest to him kept telling him this was the case.

Perhaps it was a self-fulfilling prophecy; a lack of trust in your own MSP group, a reluctance to listen to others, ultimately breeds disassociation from the leader. Kezia Dugdale found herself in a similar position when she was leader when there were as many leaks and briefings to newspapers against her from the left of the party, as Leonard experienced coming from the right. Trying to plug a leaky ship will be a major task for Sarwar or Lennon, but being magnanimous in victory always helps.

Lennon is, for a lot of members, an unknown quantity when it comes to leadership. She is considered to have handled the health brief well, particularly during the Covid pandemic, and has been instrumental in keeping the harms of alcohol and drugs at the forefront of government thinking. She has also successfully passed a ground-breaking member’s Bill in Holyrood on period products, winning the backing of the Scottish Government to do so. She knows how to work cross-party, which could bode well for unity in Labour.

However sources in the party claim that she does not want to be “Scottish Labour's Neil Kinnock” – sorting out messy internal politics with no electoral gain – and would much rather be a “Tony Blair figure”. Her decision to run this time might then be more of a trial outing – and a desire by those on the left to ensure there is not just a coronation of Sarwar.

If Sarwar wins he will be the first Scots-Asian leader of a political party, and he has already made play of the fact that his grandfather arrived in Scotland with nothing to his name but loved the place so much he stayed. However, much will be made by his detractors, as it was during the last leadership election, that the Sarwar family is these days more known for its millions than the misery of poverty. Indeed, there are already rumblings among party members on social media about sending his children to private schools, and having shares in his family businesses which does not pay the living wage.

All of these issues were aired last time around and have not gone away. But Sarwar will be hoping that there is more focus perhaps on his anti-racism campaign, on Viral Kindness Scotland which he launched during the pandemic, and the Christmas toybank appeal for Scottish Women’s Aid and Children 1st – as well as a hunger among members to see some sense of improvement in the polls rather than two MSPs tear strips from each other.

Of course neither should be in any doubt about how their lives will change should they win. Being leader of any political party is not a nine-to-five, family-friendly job. In Scottish Labour it means being on call 24/7, with no control over what members say and do on social media, and similarly no control over how your own councillors or MSPs act – yet the blame for their faults and flaws – or worse – become your problem. You also have to be a good “performer” be that in the Chamber at First Minister’s Questions or on political TV and radio. You have to give members – and donors –confidence, in order for finance to keep flowing. And you have to policies which can win the hearts and minds of an electorate which has steadily been convinced that independence is the answer to all ills.

Leadership of Scottish Labour has become a poisoned chalice – Sarwar and Lennon will both hope that drinking from it will not prove fatal.

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