THOSE supporting the attempt by Neil Findlay MSP to become Scottish Labour's leader reckon he is closing the gap on Jim Murphy MP.

Within the arcane arithmetic of an electoral college, so they say, the race is tighter than the party's establishment would have you believe.

Perhaps so. On the other hand, smart campaign managers tend to keep such knowledge, if knowledge it is, to themselves. Mr Murphy's backers would have us think his election is inevitable, that all bar certain big unions have made a rational choice of a saviour for a party in crisis. But if that's a profound delusion, as Mr Findlay's followers argue, why tip the wink?

It matters, if it matters, within the diminishing congregation of Labour in Scotland. The MSP for Lothian is offered to that constituency as "the left-wing candidate". The MP for East Renfrewshire is therefore - let's put it no higher - nothing of the kind. If either man prevails, and if Sarah Boyack MSP does not beat all the odds, Labour will have a made a clear political choice.

The need for a new leader is self-evident. Johann Lamont quit the job while giving the clear impression that it isn't worth - as they used to say of the US vice-presidency - a bucket of warm spit (or similar). Labour's former leader was disgusted with her own party. She was at the end of her tether with a patronising, complacent and yet controlling head office that took her and all those like her for granted. That fact should not be airbrushed away just yet.

Ms Lamont's central complaint was that Scottish Labour's real problem is the Labour Party generally. The majority group has electoral needs and ambitions - never mind an ideology - that have ceased to persuade voters in Scotland. Ed Miliband's ratings on this side of the Border are near-comical. For all save die-hards, Labour is just another manifestation of Westminster, a failing franchise whose only strategy is the usual auction of cuts, "toughness", and fear of the alternative.

What would you do, dispassionately, in such a fix? Even if you discount the SNP's poll ratings and all its new members, the persistent vigour of the independence movement and its thrawn impertinence, May 2015 looks dismal indeed for Scottish Labour. Getting off with a hiding might look like a decent result next spring. If that's your problem, how should your answer sound?

Whoever takes Labour's tarnished prize in the middle of December will face a new First Minister. Alex Salmond gave us his valedictions - I've counted them out, and counted them in again - in a good speech and some decent remarks yesterday. But Nicola Sturgeon has already made a couple of things perfectly clear to Labour's contenders.

First, they can hector all they like, but "the independence thing" isn't going away while she leads the SNP and the country. If a Survation poll is anything to go by, a majority are content with the logic. It isn't settled; it isn't done; and only 28 per cent would hope to prevent another referendum. With the Tories struggling for double figures in polls, and with the Liberal Democrats facing the last round-up, that poses a severe problem for Labour.

Then there's a new cliché, "the narrative". In this tale, Ms Sturgeon has seized all the territory to the left of a diminishing centre ground in Scotland. If you want social democracy (so called), or even a few versions of mild socialism, the new First Minister wants you to know she means what she says.

The spectacularly bold promise that Ms Sturgeon's SNP will not aid Mr Miliband in a hung parliament if he fails to renounce Trident hasn't been thought through, least of all in London, least of all by Labour. The challenge to the British state is explicit. So what follows? The Nationalists' claim to be the authentic party of the left in this country - and in the UK - could not be clearer.

Mr Murphy is not averse to the renewal of the Trident system. In fact, his enthusiasm for weapons of mass destruction has been something of a feature on his CV. He has not been vocal in his opposition to austerity economics: just the reverse. He does not vote against foreign wars. If you ever hear a word against Tony Blair, if will not have come from the member for East Renfrewshire.

Those are, of course, Mr Murphy's choices. They have been the kind of choices made by Scottish Labour MPs for generations. The Westminster contingent were always a reliably pliant right-wing bunch. But Holyrood has altered cases in a way that hasn't been grasped, just yet, by the kind of parliamentarian who would hand the Scottish leadership to Mr Murphy.

The people backing him - some of them are even Labour people - take a view of Scotland and the Scots. They regard us as "small c" conservative types. They treat high-falutin' talk of social democracy and social justice as a joke. They think, in essence, that this is an essentially reactionary country with a few silly affectations, but no real appetite for turning talk into reality if it costs money.

Michael Forsyth, bless the little diva, used to think that if Scotland could only be rid of council houses and their tenants, the Thatcherite deal could be sealed. This year's Blairismo holds that we're all "aspirational", really, and don't mean a word of all the justice chatter. Is that true? Without sounding like an ancient conference speech, such is the choice before Scottish Labour.

Those who get the chance to choose between Mr Murphy, Ms Boyack and Mr Findlay might want to wonder about a few things. Why is Scottish Labour held in such very low esteem, just at the moment? Because it wasn't right-wing enough under Ms Lamont? Because the Westminster way that became a yellow brick road for Mr Murphy transformed lives for those back in the sticks?

You could dismiss all those new SNP members as a fad. It might count as an argument. That's become the Labour habit, after all, and Labour's biggest mistake. To mock those who spurn you is not the mark of a smart political party. To refuse to understand why they spurn you - in hordes - is the basis for a very brief suicide note.

A great deal of effort is being put behind Mr Murphy's candidacy. It has less to do with the former minister's charm, it seems, than with preventing the Scottish party from "lurching to the left". The desires of voters in Scotland are thereby, and as usual, ignored. You wouldn't mistake that for clever. It's not the last word in democracy, either.

Holyrood said its goodbyes to Mr Salmond yesterday. His opponents' relief was almost audible. They're delighted to see the back of him. Was that because of his acumen and his famous cunning, or because alternatives no longer convince? If it wants to survive, Labour will have to arrive at an answer. Equally, it can contemplate a different problem.

How do things stand if Scotland no longer has need of such a party?