JIM Murphy's hopes of entering Holyrood through an early by-election suffered a setback last night as the three MSPs tipped to step aside for him all said they would be staying put.
Ken Macintosh, Hugh Henry and John Pentland all insisted they would seek re-election at the 2016 Scottish poll, leaving Murphy struggling to find a route into Holyrood.
Murphy, who yesterday launched his campaign to lead Scottish Labour with an admission he didn't know how many members the party had, said he wanted to be an MSP in 2016, "if not before".
Loading article content
An early appearance at Holyrood would help boost his profile as a would-be First Minister, but would also require a by-election.
Since Johann Lamont stood down as leader a week ago, there has been speculation Murphy could become an MSP via a by-election on the same day as the 2015 General Election.
One option would be to exchange seats with his Holyrood counterpart, Ken Macintosh. Under this scenario, Macintosh would stand in Murphy's East Renfrewshire seat for Westminster, while Murphy stood in Macintosh's near-identical Holyrood constituency of Eastwood.
But Macintosh, who is backing Murphy for the leadership, told the Sunday Herald: "I will be seeking re-election in 2016."
Another option would be for Murphy to stand in a by-election caused by an MSP retiring. Hugh Henry in Renfrewshire South and John Pentland in Motherwell and Wishaw are tipped as potential candidates for an early pension.
However, Pentland, who was at Murphy's campaign launch in Edinburgh, said he would not oblige. "I'm certainly fighting Motherwell and Wishaw in 2016," he told the Sunday Herald.
Henry also dismissed a deal with Murphy, saying: "I will be seeking re-election in 2016."
In theory, Murphy could stand for re-election to Westminster next May, then wait until the 2016 election to try and enter Holyrood, but it would be politically impossible.
Having declared his intention to become First Minister, Murphy would be attacked remorselessly by the SNP if he stood again for Westminster.
Macintosh said he would be "amazed" if Murphy stood again for Westminster, and suggested he could either become an MSP via the list system - usually viewed as a cop-out for party leaders - or, more probably, try to retake one of the seats lost to the SNP at the 2011 election.
Asked yesterday if he would stand again for Westminster in 2015, Murphy refused to give a clear answer, saying merely that he would "take one election at a time".
Murphy, the shadow international development secretary and former Scottish secretary, launched his leadership campaign at the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh - a venue previously favoured by the Scottish Tories.
The audience of around 100 activists included many from the pro-Union Better Together campaign, including chairman Alistair Darling.
Also supporting Murphy at the event were MPs Pamela Nash and Gemma Doyle, MSPs Pentland, James Kelly and Hanzala Malik, Glasgow City Council leader Gordon Matheson and Inverclyde Council leader Stephen McCabe.
Former MP Rosemary McKenna, a Murphy ally in the infamous "Network" promoting New Labour candidates in the 1990s, also attended.
Against a backdrop of red Saltires, Murphy said: "I'm here today for one thing and one thing only. I'm here for Scotland. The country I love. The country we all love."
He apologised for Labour's "lack of vision" in recent years, which he said cost the party the 2007 and 2011 elections, and said his tour of Scotland during the referendum had taught him the country wanted change. Labour itself needed to change to deliver it.
He said: "I'm not here to kick the SNP. I want a different type of politics where the Scottish Labour Party doesn't shout at or about the SNP but instead listens and talks to Scotland. One of the most remarkable aspects of the referendum was the passion that it attracted.
"In coming together to put the referendum result behind us we should keep that passion within us and unleash it to solve Scotland's problems. If we do that there's no problem in Scotland that we can't solve together."
It was a speech which underlined Scottish Labour's raison d'etre as tackling poverty and inequality and included a quote from party founder Keir Hardie, but it also included a distinctly Blairite reference to "wealth creation" being part of the plan.
Murphy traced his own political roots to the inequality and injustice he experienced in the Glasgow housing scheme where he slept in a drawer as an infant, and to apartheid-era South Africa where he lived as a teenager after his parents emigrated for work.
He said "none of us should sleep easily in our beds" while so many children from poor families fared badly at school and their parents had greater levels of ill health than the well-off.
He said: "Why and for what are we waiting in Scotland? How many more lives, how much more wasted potential must go by? We have the powers - and we're getting more.
"What we need is the purpose. We have seen how powerful the Scottish Government can be as a driving force for a single-minded agenda under the SNP. It's just that they used that power for one thing only. The drive for independence.
"Just imagine if we took all that energy, and all those powers and harnessed them to the one thing Scotland needs above all else - building a society where what you achieve isn't determined by the family you are born into.
"That's a project, that's a programme, that's a purpose. And it is our historic purpose. We cannot wait any longer.
"The fight for Scotland starts here. I want to get on with it, and I will not rest until we win it." Talking to the media later, Murphy said he would not be "pushed around" as leader and Scottish Labour would take its own decisions on finances, devolved policy, tactics and strategy.
He said he wanted to make Scottish Labour self-financing by broadening its appeal and attracting more donations, but said it would be a "huge challenge" to end its reliance on cash from the UK party. Despite saying he wanted to reform Scottish Labour, he said when asked what the current membership is: "You'd have to ask the Scottish Labour Party that. I don't have that."
Regarding May's General Election, he said: "We will win all of the [40 Scottish] seats we currently have - what we have we will hold.
"I know how we can do that. It's going to take a lot of work. I'm confident we can do it and that will be a great springboard for 2016. If I didn't believe we can win in 2015 and 2016 I wouldn't be standing for leader."
On the question of more devolution, he refused to say if, like the other parties in the Smith Commission, he wanted control of 100% of income tax in Holyrood's hands.
He said: "I think it's important that there is more devolution on tax but the detail ... I will set that out during the leadership campaign."
He was keener on devolving powers from central to local government, especially some of the welfare powers coming to Holyrood, such as housing benefit and attendance allowance.
"If we can create a local devolved welfare state not run from London or Edinburgh that has a financial incentive … not motivated by altruism and responsibility, but has an incentive that can save [people] money in their cities and towns if they get people into meaningful long-term work, then that's a good thing."
He suggested councils might operate different rates of benefit, with Jobseeker's Allowance remaining "probably the same … but they can come up with different ways of supporting people". Murphy is the bookies' favourite to win, but is a divisive figure within the party.
A senior Labour insider who has known Murphy for years said he was cold, calculating and driven by ambition, not ideology, and added: "Jim has no politics. He was always part of a New Labour project building up his own career … It's all about him."
Asked how the party would fare if Murphy became leader, a Labour MP added: "We're f***ed.''