JIM Murphy emerged last night as the front runner in the hunt for a new leader of the Scottish Labour Party with the party seeking to end internal divisions and mount a credible challenge to the SNP.
The race for leadership of Scottish Labour follows the resignation of Johann Lamont late on Friday. She stood down with a strongly worded attack on colleagues at Westminster, whom she said made her position “untenable”, and accused some in the UK party of treating Scotland as a “branch office”.
Her departure comes days after representatives of Scotland’s five main political parties began talks chaired by Lord Smith of Kelvin to thrash out proposals for extending devolution for Scotland in the wake of the No victory in last month’s independence referendum.
Lamont’s outspoken statement yesterday accused Scottish politics of being left “between two sets of dinosaurs” – Nationalists who were unable to move on from the loss of the referendum vote and Labour colleagues at Westminster who wanted to keep the Scottish Labour Party under London’s control.
“Just as the SNP must embrace that devolution is the settled will of the Scottish people, the Labour Party must recognise that the Scottish Labour Party has to be autonomous and not just a branch office of a party based in London,” she said.
“I firmly believe that Scotland’s place is in the UK and I do not believe in powers for power’s sake.
“But colleagues need to realise that the focus of Scottish politics is now Holyrood, not Westminster.”
Lamont claimed her position as leader became “untenable” after Ed Miliband’s office removed Scottish Labour general secretary Ian Price. The move was made without Lamont being consulted, which she saw as undermining her position as Scottish party leader.
Lamont, who took over the role following the party’s crushing defeat in the 2011 Holyrood elections, is now expected to seek re-election as a backbench MSP in her Glasgow Pollok seat.
A source told Scotland on Sunday she plans to use her position with no leadership responsibilities to “speak her mind” and “say things unfettered”.
Sources close to Lamont said she had repeatedly sought talks with Ed Miliband over the party’s approach to the Smith Commission, but had been rebuffed by the UK Labour leader.
“There’s been no conversation between Ed and Johann on the Smith talks,” the source said. “She sought talks, but he was never able to find time for her.”
Lamont felt that she was being targeted by a senior colleague – rumoured to be Margaret Curran, the shadow secretary of state for Scotland – who she believed was lobbying members of the Scottish Labour Executive in a bid to hound her out of office.
“That has to change,” she said. “The Scottish Labour Party must be a more autonomous party which works in partnership with the UK party. We must be allowed to make our own decisions and control our own resources.”
Yesterday, former Labour First Ministers expressed frustration at the position in which Lamont found herself. Jack McConnell said he was “very, very angry” at Lamont’s treatment.
“It is outrageous,” he said. “To undermine her position in this way, when the position of the Scottish Labour Party leader was clarified so clearly three years ago, is in my view entirely the wrong way to go,” he said.
“I think there are serious questions that need to be asked about what has happened in these past two weeks, but also that this issue has to be resolved in advance of the election of the next leader of the Scottish Labour Party.”
Henry McLeish backed Lamont’s comments that Scottish Labour was treated like a “branch office” of Westminster, warning that the Labour party was “sleepwalking towards independence” if it continued to fail to recognise the importance of Holyrood to the Scottish people.
“She is obviously frustrated and very angry,” said McLeish. “I believe that Scottish Labour faces a crisis and much of that has been created at Westminster. The job of leading Labour in Scotland has turned into a nightmare case of hassling between Westminster and Holyrood. The fact [is] that the leader has always got to look over her shoulder.”
Party insiders fear that if Murphy – who was one of the most prominent campaigners of the Better Together camp in the run-up to the referendum with his 100 Town in 100 days tour – is elected as leader, an autonomous Scottish Labour party could be further away.
Murphy is considered to be more Westminster-centric than some of his potential challengers. Just last week, he ruled himself out of replacing Lamont, saying publicly that he would back her leadership.
But party insiders believe that now a vacancy has been created, his attitude may change. Murphy is out of favour with Miliband, and his chances of a senior position in a UK Labour cabinet are seen as being slim.
“Jim will go for it,” one colleague said of the Scottish Labour leadership.
Yesterday, Murphy came under fire from Linlithgow and Falkirk East MP Michael Connarty, who raised the spectre of “The Network” – a 1990s grouping of Labour figures sceptical about a powerful Scottish Parliament. This group included Murphy, he said, and its influence could still be felt. “The Network was organised by people who were right-wing within the party,” he said. “They were also not for responding to the wish for a devolved party and a stronger devolution situation.
“It basically neutered the Scottish Labour Party. The Network does not exist anymore, but there are people who still think like that.”
Connarty said Lamont’s attempts to reform the structure of the party had been met with opposition from certain factions of the party – including Murphy. “There are people who are just totally resistent to the idea that the Scottish Labour Party can become totally autonomous,” he said.
Potential challengers to Murphy include MP Anas Sarwar, deputy leader and acting leader of the Scottish Labour Party; former prime minister Gordon Brown; shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander; Scottish Labour’s shadow health spokesman Neil Findlay; shadow minister for youth employment and shadow deputy finance minister Jenny Marra and MSP Kezia Dugdale.
Connarty said Gordon Brown – whose public appearances in the run-up to last month’s referendum have been credited with swaying voters towards the No camp – had his “heart in Holyrood”, arguing that he could unite the party under him.
A group of Labour MPs including Ian Murray, MP for Edinburgh South, have approached Brown in a bid to persuade him to stand.
However, it is believed that the former prime minister, who yesterday paid tribute to Lamont for her “determination, compassion and a down-to-earth approach to the leadership”, had ruled out the possibility of seeking nomination.