At the end of last week, Johann Lamont, the Scottish Labour leader, announced she was standing down from her position with immediate effect. Despite weeks of speculation about her position in the wake of the independence referendum, this still came as a shock to those working in politics at Holyrood.
In newspaper articles she said she often felt Scotland was run ‘like a branch office out of London’ rather than as the distinct party it was supposed to be, following a party review after the heavy defeat at the 2011 Scottish parliamentary elections.
Speculation is already rife about who will take over. Potential frontrunners Kezia Dugdale, Jenny Marra and Jackie Baillie have already ruled themselves out. Labour’s health spokesman at Holyrood, Neil Findlay, who is popular with those on the very left of the party, has said he wants to see former Prime Minister Gordon Brown stand. Perhaps most surprisingly, the Deputy and now interim leader in Scotland, Anas Sarwar, has taken himself out of the equation saying he will focus on running the contest ahead.
So that leaves a mixed bag of names, all of whom had prominent roles during the referendum campaign. Jim Murphy, who took his Irn Bru crate to speak in 100 towns in 100 days, has already been cited as a contender by many in the Scottish press corp, as has his Westminster colleague Douglas Alexander, who at time of writing has not ruled himself out. Drew Smith, who was the Scottish Labour lead on the referendum campaign, is also a distinct possibility.
Sources close to Gordon Brown have claimed he will not stand, but so far there has been no official statement on this, so he remains a possibility. At the moment it looks more likely that a Westminster MP will take on the role as opposed to an MSP based at Holyrood. Whatever the outcome, it will undoubtedly change the dynamics within the Scottish party.
With elections at Westminster only seven months away, a Scottish leader drawn from the ranks of Labour MPs (as opposed to another MSP) could help stave off the advance of the SNP, whose membership has trebled in the wake of the referendum. Their numbers are now only behind the Conservatives and UK Labour parties and their representation at Westminster is likely to rise well beyond the six MPs they currently have.
Holyrood is a different matter. If the Scottish Labour leadership is no longer present in Holyrood then the choice could be to have the Deputy position based there, but Anas Sarwar (an MP) is viewed as a slick operator and there is no suggestion yet that he would vacate his role.
So that would mean the lead MSP would be of a lower stature than both Scottish Labour’s Leader and Deputy Leader. Being led by Wesminster could be seen to weaken the party’s position in Edinburgh.
In the meantime, someone will have to take on the role of Opposition lead during First Ministers questions. This will be an interim position challenging first Alex Salmond and then Nicola Sturgeon as she takes to the podium as Scotland’s first female First Minister next month. Labour’s welfare spokeswoman Jackie Baillie would be a worthy adversary, having substituted for Ms Lamont previously. She knows what to expect from the throngs on the SNP benches and her acerbic tongue and dry wit would stand her in good stead against Ms Sturgeon.
The biggest challenge for the Scottish Labour party in the coming weeks will be to ensure that the change in leadership does not derail their plans for a Westminster challenge. The leadership election is being held quickly, as it had to be, and before Christmas we will know who is in charge for Labour north of the border. However, it will be in May next year, when the 59 Scottish MPs are chosen by the electorate, that we will learn whether Scottish Labour’s troubles at the top have really had an impact on voters.
Lynn McMath head PLMR’s Scotland office in Edinburgh. Prior to joining PLMR she was advising front bench politicians as the Press Advisor to the (Labour) Shadow Cabinet in the Scottish Parliament.
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