IT’S NOT until you listen to First Minister’s Questions at Holyrood that the reality and comprehensive nature of the harrowing of Labour in Scotland becomes wholly evident. There was Ruth Davidson on Thursday morning, calmly and rather eloquently taking Nicola Sturgeon to task over figures that revealed the high number of vacant hospital consultant posts throughout Scotland. Ms Sturgeon, of course, was prepared for this inquisition, citing increased numbers of workers in the NHS since the SNP came to power.

As Ms Davidson reminded the chamber, though, the First Minister had body-swerved the question that was specifically asked. Then, a good 20 minutes later, it was time for a question by Kezia Dugdale after the leaders of Scotland’s two main parties had concluded their business. You were left with three immediate impressions: Ruth Davidson will be a terrific leader of the opposition at Holyrood; Nicola Sturgeon doesn’t quite have the measure of her as she’d had Ms Dugdale and each of Ms Davidson’s polished interventions made you think you were listening to the exequies for a deceased Labour Party. Ominously for Labour Ms Davidson didn’t sound like a Tory, more like a social democrat occupying Scotland’s political middle ground.

The more we grow more accustomed to Ms Davidson’s cultivated west of Scotland tones in this chamber and those of some of her front bench like Adam Tomkins, it becomes increasingly apparent that there are significant obstacles blocking Scottish Labour’s return to being regarded as a serious political force in the land. Their cowardly performance the previous day in the debate on the proposed Named Person legislation was sorrowful. With the exception of Jenny Marra they capitulated when they had an opportunity to exert pressure on a beleaguered John Swinney. Throughout the 2016 Holyrood election campaign it had indicated opposition to this illiberal and unnecessary measure only to retreat behind abstention when the time arrived for it to act like grown-ups.

A glance along the party’s Holyrood front bench revealed too many of the same old faces who have presided over this party’s decade of failure. Even though Ms Dugdale had promised several new faces amongst this year’s Holyrood hopefuls only two made it on to the list. Since the party began to lose its grip on Holyrood during its last term in government it was evident that there was a policy vacuum at the heart of what passed for the party’s executive. “We are Labour,” they seemed to say, “and Scotland is a Labour country.” Scotland may still be a a Labour country but we’ll never know while there’s no party left worthy of that name.

Amidst the entrails of Labour’s latest electoral evisceration the party must somehow find a way to hang on to Glasgow at next year’s council elections. It’s already being written off just as it was in 2012 when a Nationalist triumph was predicted. Anas Sarwar has been given responsibility for Labour in Glasgow by Ms Dugdale and in some conversations with party activists and supporters the name of Steven Purcell has emerged once more. Soundings are already being taken to determine whether or not to invite the charismatic former leader of the ruling Labour group on Glasgow City Council to stand in his local ward of Drumchapel and Anniesland.

After almost five years as Glasgow leader, Mr Purcell resigned from his post in 2010 citing stress. It later emerged that he had been admitted to a drug and alcohol rehabilitation unit. Those closest to him at the time now believe that Mr Purcell had suffered a mental breakdown exacerbated by alcohol. A police investigation into allegations of corruption was dropped for want of evidence. It is now known that at least one senior unelected officer in his administration whom he had trusted was briefing furiously against him to chosen journalists at his time of greatest need. Friends of his say that he has been free of addiction for several years and has never looked happier or fitter. Whether Mr Purcell would want to jeopardise his contented frame of mind by entering the snake-pit of Glasgow politics is unknown.

What cannot be doubted is that the Labour Party has missed acute political acumen and strategic thinking. One former senior west of Scotland Labour advisor told me recently that a course was being plotted for Mr Purcell to become leader of the party in Scotland. He said: “Steven Purcell, in my opinion, was one of the most gifted and brightest young Labour thinkers of his generation. His record of achievement at Glasgow was a good one and on several occasions successfully portrayed the SNP Holyrood administration as being anti-Glasgow.

“It was his leadership before his tragic breakdown that paved the way for our unexpected success in 2011 when the SNP was carrying all before it. It would be great for the party if he were to make a political comeback. He is still very highly thought of.”

This is hardly surprising, Mr Purcell’s drive was crucial in securing the 2014 Commonwealth Games for Glasgow, but it was during his previous tenure as convenor of education that his aptitude for establishing successful attempts at reducing the attainment gap became apparent.

Amongst these was the creation of 29 ‘learning communities’, a scheme that saw each of the city’s secondary schools establish links with feeder primaries, nurseries, Special Educational Needs schools, local health agencies, the voluntary sector and colleges. Underpinning the initiative was a 'one file' child approach to tailor the support of educational, health and social agencies to the individual needs of each child and his family. It was what a caring Named Person ought to look like. Instead of looking for problems it was pre-empting them by bringing the knowledge and information of public services together to support the most vulnerable among our children.

Mr Purcell, aided by a highly-motivated team, created an atmosphere where head teachers were encouraged to be flexible with curriculums. Exemptions from city policies were encouraged where there was a case for local variances. It was a pioneering exercise in loosening the one-size-fits-all approach which has bedevilled comprehensive education in Scotland. Within this, too, head teachers were encouraged to consider setting and streaming contrary to national guidelines and nurture classes were established as an alternative to exclusion or, worse, referral to special needs schools such as the notorious Kerlaw.

Head teachers had 90 per cent of budgets devolved to them, the maximum under national guidelines. Glasgow’s was the only education authority to do this. There was an assortment of other imaginative policies, all within the existing framework, leading to some remarkable results five years later when Glasgow’s exam results improved and when schools in the east end of the city saw major increases in the numbers of pupils going onto higher education. Just as crucially, there were significant reductions in the number of school-leavers categorised as NEETs: not in Education, Employment or Training.

Our attitudes to those who have suffered mental health issues remain less compassionate than to those with purely physical ailments and this may yet prevent Mr Purcell making a modest return to frontline politics. This wretched and reduced Scottish Labour Party, though, needs his imagination and strategic skills more than ever.