Scottish Labour has not taken well to opposition. It happens. The party of Gordon Brown and Donald Dewar and Robin Cook and Alistair Darling and George Robertson and Henry McLeish and Jack McConnell and all the many, many other substantial Labour figures of the early 21st century was Scotland’s party of perpetual power.

It didn't know anything else, and the intakes of MSPs since it lost to the SNP in 2007, most of whom cut their political teeth when these men were in charge, have not been psychologically wired for opposition.

This, in essence, is the state of mind which leads to regular changes in leadership. In the mind of the party collective, the policies are righteous, so their failure to win can surely only be down to the man or woman at the top. Wendy Alexander. Iain Gray. Johann Lamont. Jim Murphy. Kezia Dugdale. Richard Leonard.

We are now nearing the point of no return, again, as the Scottish party plays out an internal war not dissimilar to the one recently waged in Westminster between Keir Starmer supporting social democrats and Jeremy Corbyn supporting socialists. (There is more to it than that, in Scotland, but it’s not a bad start.)

Presuming that the drip-feed of senior figures publicly declaring their loss of confidence in Mr Leonard is strategic, and ongoing, and that others who are not going public are beginning to engineer his departure privately, it seems likelier than not that his time is nearing an end. It’s all very Jackson Carlaw, isn’t it?

But there are many questions for he or she who would be king, chief amongst which is whether they really understand where they are. The sword he or she holds is double-edged, because it is perfectly clear that the party is heading for another poor election result in May. To see them return a number of MSPs in the teens would not be a surprise at this stage.

For that reason, the first question I would ask, if it were me, is do I want this now? Do I want my first real test as leader to be so masochistic? Or would I be better keeping the current leader in place and taking over with a five-year runway, rather than what will be, by the time the process plays out, a six-month one?

If, having asked these questions, I felt that I could turn a life-threatening defeat into simply another bad election, I might look across the boundary to the recent Scottish Tory party leadership change for a critical lesson in expectation management.

The new leader must perfect the narrative immediately, and should portray himself or herself as being on a rescue and recovery mission; the rescue phase running up to the Scottish Parliament election of 2021, and aimed only at stopping the bleeding, then the recovery phase running up to the Scottish Parliament election of 2026, at which point the aim is to take Bute House.

This is a perfectly credible and viable narrative, and it should be enunciated honestly and frankly, without indulging in self-destructive and baseless boastfulness about the party’s prospects for May.

The elephant in the room – how to deal with a second independence referendum – is inextricably linked. Developing a position on Indyref 2, and indeed on devolution and the future of the Union itself, will be significantly easier once we know the result of May’s election, and whether or not the SNP has earned a majority.

This, frankly, is another reason why leaving Mr Leonard in place for now may be a sensible road for his detractors to travel, because as sensible a long-term position as Labour’s is, it is also too complex to rapidly explain to an electorate which is conditioned towards the binary positioning of the SNP’s nationalism and the Tories’ unionism.

Ironically, given that the party can’t get a look-in in the debate, Labour actually possesses the likeliest eventual outcome to Scotland’s internecine constitutional battle. The party favours a federalist solution, along with the Scottish Liberal Democrats (I wrote on these pages last month of the case for the parties merging, which could become stronger than ever).

Now, I do appreciate that the "F word" means little to most people, carries with it a thousand different definitions, and incorporates a glossary of terms such as devo plus, devo max, home rule, quasi-federalism, pseudo-federalism and a variety of other unpalatable acronyms.

However it remains the case now, as polling showed it was ahead of the 2014 referendum, that this "in the middle" option was the preferred choice of the people, and by quite some distance.

Labour’s position could well come into its own after an SNP majority in May. The Tory party appears to be no closer to a credible position on a second referendum in the event of an SNP majority. Although there continue to be sensible internal voices trying to persuade the "ultras" that denying a democratically requested referendum is a carbon copy of the approach that has put the UK into this perilous position, "never, never, never" remains the default position of Westminster Tories. The base will, I am certain, sleep easily.

A chance for Labour then, and indeed the LibDems, to fill the gap as the voice of reasonable unionism. By acknowledging the democratic requirement to hold a second referendum, Labour could simultaneously set out the progressive unionist case. It could avoid the mistakes of 2014, the most substantial of which was to place the status quo on the ballot paper. Labour could be the midwife of the New Union – a declaration built to stand the test of time, in stark contrast to the Calman and Smith commissions, which were built to stand until they were forced into another commission.

Getting the constitutional issue right will, as night follows day, be any new Labour leader’s primary challenge. Because, if they know one thing by now, it should be this: the Scottish Labour Party, as it is currently constituted, as it currently operates and as it is currently composed, is not simply waiting for cyclical change to return to power in Scotland. The party we see today will never be in power again.

• Andy Maciver is Director of Message Matters

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