For the third time in as many years there is to be a leadership contest in the Scottish Labour Party (SLP).
In October 2014 Johann Lamont was ousted in a coup for which the groundwork had been laid by the right wing several months earlier. Super-Blairite Jim Murphy subsequently defeated Neil Findlay for the post of SLP leader.
Murphy, claimed the right wing, was the “big hitter” the SLP needed to revive its fortunes. When Murphy was elected, the SLP had 41 Westminster MPs. Six months later it had just one.
Even so, Murphy refused to resign — and the Scottish Executive Committee (SEC) passed a vote of confidence in him. But then Murphy decided to resign anyway, claiming that he did not have the support needed to complete his project to “transform” the SLP.
In the subsequent leadership contest of summer 2015 Murphy’s deputy, Kezia Dugdale, defeated Ken Macintosh by 78% to 22%. Macintosh was seen as Murphy’s candidate, whereas Dugdale, having been deputy leader, was seen as the natural successor to Murphy.
In the following year’s Holyrood elections the SLP vote fell by 8%, it lost 13 seats, and it ended up in third place behind the Tories.
In this year’s general election the vagaries of the first-past-the-post system saw the number of SLP MPs increase from one to seven. But the overall SLP vote increased by less than 10,000. In terms of the popular vote and the number of seats won, the SLP finished third behind the Tories.
It would be wrong to pin the blame for the SLP’s absolute or relative poor performances in 2016 and 2017 on Dugdale.
The combined legacy of Blairism, cronyism, collaboration with the Tories in Better Together, and the poisonous politics of the Murphy-McTernan duo had reduced the SLP to a toxic brand in the eyes of many voters. But Dugdale’s politics fell short of what was needed to revive the SLP’s fortunes.
In the 2015 national Labour Party leadership contest Dugdale was officially “neutral” but was publicly critical of Corbyn. In the 2016 contest she openly campaigned against Corbyn and backed Owen Smith. Corbyn’s subsequent victory, she claimed, made Labour “unelectable”.
Dugdale was seen, and rightly so, as weak in challenging Sturgeon in Holyrood and half-hearted in her opposition to Scottish independence. And her campaign strategy in this year’s general was simply wrong.
The campaign had a target of winning just two new seats. One of them was East Renfrewshire, where Blair McDougall — former Better Together Campaign Director, and former adviser to Jim Murphy — was standing. Unsurprisingly, he performed the worst of all the SLP candidates.
Dugdale seemed not to understand that the record and politics of people like McDougall was what had repelled voters from Labour, just as she failed to understand that Corbyn was winning voters back to Labour.
Dugdale did not share a platform with Corbyn on the two occasions he spoke in Scotland in the election campaign. And the emphasis on “local champions” in SLP election literature was a way of saying:
“When you are deciding how to vote, don’t think about the chance you have to elect a Corbyn-led Labour government. Think about how much your Labour candidate can be counted on to take up local issues.”
Dugdale was never of the left. But she was not a hardened right-winger either. She became SLP leader almost by default and made a succession of political misjudgements — the resources squandered on Blair McDougall, for example, could have won the SLP at least another three seats.
The left candidate in the latest leadership contest is list MSP Richard Leonard. The right-wing candidate, masquerading as the “unity” candidate, is list MSP Anas Sarwar, the former SLP deputy leader at the time of Johann Lamont’s leadership. It is likely to prove a close contest.
The left in the SLP is much weaker than the Labour left in England and Wales. In the 2016 national leadership contest a majority, albeit not a substantial one, of SLP members backed Owen Smith. The majority of Scottish CLPs are probably still controlled by the right.
Sarwar can draw on much larger resources than Leonard. The right-wing vote will go to Sarwar as a monolithic bloc. And Sarwar’s attempts to portray himself as pro-Corbyn, coupled with the readiness of Pauline McNeill MSP to act as his campaign chair, may allow him to pull in votes from the left.
The SLP left needs to ruthlessly expose the charlatanism of Sarwar’s election campaign, alongside of mounting a campaign which persuades SLP members not just to cast a vote for Leonard but also to organise to win over their CLPs for left-wing politics.