SENIOR Labour figures have appealed to Gordon Brown to step forward as the “unity candidate” for leadership of the party in Scotland to avoid a bitter civil war following the resignation of Johann Lamont.
The party’s interim chief, MP Anas Sarwar, said Scottish Labour would announce its new leader on 13 December and that those interested in the post would be invited to declare their candidacy from today.
In a sign of growing hostilities between warring party factions, there was a spate of off-the-record briefings yesterday following the emergence of MP Jim Murphy as a strong candidate.
There was speculation that shadow health secretary Neil Findlay MSP, who is seen as champion of the left and the trade unions, would consider running against Mr Murphy, who is regarded as being on the right wing of the party.
Sources close to Mr Findlay said the election of Mr Murphy as leader would be “unacceptable”.
But one MP who backs him said Scottish Labour faced a “nightmare scenario” of two candidates campaigning “left versus right, and Holyrood versus Westminster”. He said: “We will be tearing ourselves apart as our supporters haemorrhage to the Nationalists. The real disaster is we could end up with Mr Findlay as leader and not Jim or Gordon.”
With nominations set to close on Tuesday, 4 November, Mr Findlay joined calls for Mr Brown to step forward, while other party sources described the former prime minister as “the only unity candidate”.
Former Labour minister Lord Foulkes said that if Mr Brown stood for the leadership, he would be unopposed.
Lord Foulkes said: “He is the one figure who can bring everybody together. He would also bring tremendous gravitas and experience to the role.”
Edinburgh South MP Ian Murray has already declared that he has asked Mr Brown to stand, and a source said “many other MPs, MSPs and party figures have approached him”.
Under party rules, the leadership team needs to be one MSP and one MP, so if Mr Brown or Mr Murphy were to win, then Mr Sarwar would have to resign.
Mr Murphy was yesterday understood to be discussing with his family whether to make a bid for the Scottish leadership. One of his backers said: “It would mean taking a cut in salary, running for the Scottish Parliament and ending his career at Westminster, so there is a lot for Jim to think about.”
While Mr Murphy had a strong referendum campaign and is seen as a big hitter, he is seen as a leading Blairite and on the right of the party and is strongly disliked by the unions who have a third of the votes in the electoral college.
Mr Sarwar has said he is “open” to standing as Ms Lamont’s successor and it is understood he has been approached by some in the party. However, one senior figure described him as “an empty suit”.
Another potential candidate, the Lothians MSP Kezia Dugdale, who is seen as a rising star in the party, is thought to have privately ruled herself out for the leadership but said she would run for deputy leader “if there is a vacancy”.
Bookmaker William Hill last night had Mr Murphy as odds-on favourite to replace Ms Lamont as party leader in Scotland. It is also tipping Jenny Marra MSP to be among the runners.
Meanwhile, shadow Scottish secretary Margaret Curran was said to be “extremely hurt” by Ms Lamont’s accusation that party colleagues at Westminster had treated the party in Scotland as a “branch office”.
A Labour source said: “It seems very strange that people around Johann have chosen to go after Margaret like this, and she doesn’t understand why.
“Margaret has been forthright in her views in the past when things needed changing, but that was on the basis of a strong friendship.”
Announcing the timetable for the contest for the new leader, Mr Sarwar rejected Ms Lamont’s reference to Scotland as a “branch office”.
He said: “That’s not an assessment I recognise.
“We have a process in terms of we are the Scottish Labour Party, we have a distinct identity, we should have a distinct policy offer around the devolution settlement, we should have that going forward.
“There’s been an endorsement for how the Scottish Labour Party should operate through the referendum result, which is a recognition that the majority of people in Scotland believe that we should take the majority of decision-making in Scotland but still be part of something bigger, and that is the United Kingdom.”
He also said he did not accept her description of some Scottish Labour MPs as “dinosaurs”.
Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander, who is also Labour’s election co-ordinator, denied he had sidelined Ms Lamont during the Scottish referendum campaign or that UK Labour leader Ed Miliband had stopped her opposing the bedroom tax.
On the bedroom tax, he said: “That’s simply not the case. I’ve been campaigning against the bedroom tax for years.”
SNP MSP Stewart Maxwell said: “Ed Miliband and his Westminster coterie apparently had plenty to say behind Johann Lamont’s back as they undermined her leadership, but now he must respond publicly to Johann Lamont’s resignation.”
He added: “Johann Lamont’s resignation has lifted the lid on the scale of the in-fighting between Labour in Scotland and Labour at Westminster and has exposed the shambles that the Labour Party is for all to see – and people understand that the blame lies squarely at the door of Ed Miliband.
“The London-based leadership is pulling the party’s strings in Scotland, and Labour campaigning side by side with the Tories in the referendum has proved a deeply corrosive combination which is causing Labour support to plummet in Scotland.”
Mr Maxwell went on: “The latest polling analysis indicates that people in Scotland will not forget Labour’s alliance with the Tories.
“Labour are now polling at just 26 per cent for next year’s UK general election, while SNP support has surged to 43 per cent – and has been consistently high since the referendum.
“Labour were already a party in crisis, and Johann Lamont’s resignation – caused by in-fighting and deep division – has plunged them to a new low.”
John McTernan: Scottish Labour must look to centre ground ‘where all elections are won’
Politics is in the end about personality, policy, positioning and purpose. Most discussion starts and ends with the personal – gossip is so much easier. So the papers are full of he said-she said, Ed v Johann and so on. And the airwaves are full of former Labour Scottish government ministers using the language of the cybernats to attack their own Scottish parliamentary colleagues. Enough, no really, enough!
For Scottish Labour, renewal has to start with purpose or all else is lost. What is the point of the modern Labour Party? Has all inequality been eradicated? All disadvantage eliminated? All workers paid fair pay? No, of course not. And that is just the tip of Labour’s historical agenda. There is so much to do. Of course, Labour should be proud of its achievements – from the National Health Service to the national minimum wage – but, as the Swedish Social Democrats say, we should be proud but not satisfied. How then should social justice and equality be delivered? The key is in the names of those great Labour achievements – nationally. “Social justice in one country”, to coin a phrase, was rejected just over a month ago. Labour’s task is to deliver equality in the multi-faith, multi-national United Kingdom. Scottish Labour has to do the heavy lifting in Scotland.
Which leads to positioning. Equality and social justice have many enemies. Some of them act right but talk left. Like the SNP, which opposes an energy price freeze and a 50p higher rate of income tax. Ed Miliband’s promises for the next UK general election should be potent weapons against the SNP. Scottish Labour has to press home its advantage as the only genuine left of centre party in Scotland. And that word centre is crucial. It was clear in the referendum campaign that the SNP is prepared to flirt further and further with the ultra-left. The impossibilist notion of nationalising the Royal Mail was just one sign. As the party postures here it abandons the centre ground – the place where all elections are won. Stirling will not be won from the left.
From these two insights on purpose and positioning flow the right policies. An offer on housing that delivers 20,000 new homes a year in Scotland – giving those who want and need it a foot on the housing ladder. An education policy that increases the opportunities of working class kids who are currently hit twice by poor schools – being worsened by the appalling Curriculum for Excellence – and then by cuts in further education. A health policy that is unafraid to learn from the revolution in integrating health care and social care in England. Equality, equality, equality – the mark of Labour’s ambition and the measure of the SNP failure.
Then finally we come to personalities. Scottish Labour needs a figure with passion and the personal politics to hammer home these themes. It needs a leader who can lift the heads of the activists and raise the horizons of the party. Only confidence, ability and sheer swagger will silence the former Labour MSPs and first ministers who have not been elected since the iPhone first went on sale. Unity, after all, is strength.
• John McTernan was an adviser to former prime minister Tony Blair