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Much at stake for Labour’s next leader at Holyrood

Four months after the rout of Labour by the SNP in the Holyrood elections prompted Iain Gray to announce that he would stand down as soon as the party can elect a new leader, the contest has yet to start.

There is an expectation that the deputy Scottish leader, Johann Lamont, will be a candidate but the general reluctance among Labour MSPs to enter the fray is testament to the current predicament of the Labour Party in Scotland.

It has lost too many of its more able operators. Cathy Jamieson and Margaret Curran have chosen to move from Holyrood to Westminster and Andy Kerr and Tom McCabe lost their seats in May. It is not surprising therefore that a publicity-conscious MP should emerge from this vacuum with a proposal that MPs as well MSPs should be allowed to stand for the Scottish leadership. Enter Tom Harris, MP for Glasgow South and a former UK Transport Minister, who has declared an interest in standing although he could not do so unless the review under Jim Murphy, shadow defence spokesman at Westminster, and Sarah Boyack, Shadow Environment Minister at Holyrood, recommends changing the rules. Opinion has already divided over that thorny issue with former First Minister, Henry McLeish, calling for the next leader to be an MSP and backench MP Michael Connarty arguing it should be an MP.

The temptation to appoint a big hitter from Westminster will be considerable but future strategy for Labour in Scotland must both reassess the relationship between Scottish Labour and the UK party as well as take account of the new political landscape north and south of the Border.

There is a paradox in the party that delivered devolution not having a separate Scottish leader. Labour’s inability in May to offer an identity sufficiently distinctive from the UK party was one reason for its failure. So it would seem strange potentially to underline that perception by having an MP lead the Scottish party.

The policy of increased powers for the Scottish Parliament as recommended by the cross-party Calman Commission, instigated by Scottish Labour under former leader, Wendy Alexander, is another area of tension between Holyrood and Westminster. A significant transfer of power under devolution max would result in fewer MPs from Scotland, thereby reducing Labour’s chances of victory in future general elections. A separate paradox has emerged, that also spells trouble for Labour, of the SNP being the party that has adjusted best to devolution.

The Nationalists have capitalised on devolution max by seeking additional powers through the Scotland Bill, leaving Labour little room to display its distinctiveness other than by opposing a policy, independence, that the SNP seems content to leave on the back burner, at least for the time being.

There is much at stake for the Labour Party and whom it appoints as leader at Holyrood. That person’s hinterland will also be pivotal.

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