THE Scottish Labour leadership election is, sneered an SNP press release, the “least inspiring choice in the history of devolution”.

I’m not sure that’s altogether fair. Before Alex Salmond’s late re-entry into the 2004 SNP leadership race, that too was pretty uninspiring, the choice being a lacklustre Roseanna Cunningham and the then-inexperienced Nicola Sturgeon.

In fact, genuinely “inspiring” leadership elections haven’t exactly been a hallmark of any Scottish political party in the past 20 years. But this Labour contest – the fifth in a decade – is shaping up to be strategically interesting rather than captivating.

Essentially, it comes down to what path Scottish Labour wants to take, either continuing the relatively slick, moderate approach of the past decade or so, or moving into a more Corbynista groove. Therefore, the choice is Anas Sarwar, who might be seen as the mainstream candidate, or Richard Leonard, who’s coming from left of field in both senses of the term.

On paper, as a recent opinion poll appeared to confirm, the Scottish Labour membership favours Sarwar, although I can’t help feeling that the momentum (with a small “m”) is in Leonard’s favour.

As readers of this newspaper will be aware, Sarwar’s campaign thus far has been troubled, to say the least. Questions about his children’s education and family firm’s approach to labour relations might have been manageable in isolation, but taken together not only raise questions about his judgement (some supporters have been surprised at his failure to anticipate the inevitable rows) but also his commitment to reducing inequality which, as he said in an otherwise impressive campaign launch speech, he was “not willing to accept”.

Few doubt, however, that Sarwar really wants to be party leader and First Minister, something that hasn’t properly been the case since Jack McConnell was at the helm. That isn’t to say each leader since hasn’t worked hard, but few, for example, have matched the sheer determination of Alex Salmond between 2004 and 2007.

As one source puts it, Kezia Dugdale’s principal weakness is therefore Sarwar’s strength, that he really wants it. “A lot of folk are sick of us being part of this pantomime,” says a Scottish Labour MSP, “they want someone who’ll see it through.”

Which is where doubts arise about Richard Leonard, someone who surprised many with his willingness to declare in the wake of Dugdale’s resignation.

Indeed, there are parallels with the emergence of Jeremy Corbyn back in 2010: he didn’t contest the UK party leadership because he genuinely wanted to become Prime Minister, but because everyone else had had a go.

In another context, therefore, the most likely “left” contender would have been the MSP Neil Findlay, who recounts his bid for the top job in an engaging set of diaries published today, called Socialism and Hope – A Journey Through Turbulent Times. In one entry, he talks about clearing the decks if he’d won in 2014, making use of other left-wingers such as Richard Leonard, who until recently were viewed as a threat rather than an asset.

In other diary entries, Findlay also captures the essential difference between today’s two contenders. Sarwar, he writes in January 2014, is “well-mannered, ambitious and extremely well connected”, while Leonard, he muses a few months later, is “clever and articulate…someone who knows their Labour movement history inside out”.

Ideally, what Scottish Labour needs is a Sarwar-Leonard mash up, a leader with Sarwar’s drive and presentational skills but also Leonard’s intellectual heft and lack of political baggage. In the real world, however, the party has to make a choice, and for it’s worth I reckon Leonard would be the better bet.

One reason is that only Leonard can conceivably insert the Scottish Labour Party into a UK-wide Corbyn narrative, something Dugdale – who supported Owen Smith against Corbyn last year – obviously couldn’t manage. And although Sarwar has recently pivoted leftward, promising to champion “both radical democratic socialism and principled internationalism”, few Labourites, even supporters, find it terribly convincing.

Another reason is that Leonard, as one supporter puts it, can act as “a bridge not a barrier” to the young and returnee left wingers who voted Labour in June’s general election, while strategically he’d also take Scottish Labour into “good territory for Labour and bad territory for the SNP”.

As someone who’s long critiqued the SNP for talking left but acting Blairite, Leonard’s analysis and policy agenda is a breath of fresh air. A federalist, he has a solid grasp of economics – both historically and theoretically – and critiqued the Scottish Government in a contribution to the 2014 Red Paper on Scotland. “While appealing for political sovereignty,” wrote Leonard, the SNP “has presided in Government over an historic loss in economic sovereignty.”

And there’s been policy to match the rhetoric, not only an industrial strategy but Leonard’s recent call for rent controls, all the sort of stuff that would make the ostensibly social democratic SNP wince. And although relatively unknown both inside and outside the party, to me that’s an advantage. In television interviews Leonard – until recently a Twitter refusenik – has come across as sincere and likeable.

If it all sounds too good to be true, that’s because it probably is. As with Corbyn, Leonard’s brand of socialism can come across as a little old-fashioned, fighting noble but 40-year-old battles, while that cynical yet necessary question – how do you pay for it all? – hangs over much of what he proposes.

At least, however, it would offer voters a genuine alternative to Nicola Sturgeon’s rhetorical radicalism, which promises the earth but rarely follows through. As Leonard said in his eloquent campaign launch speech, voters are justifiably discontented, but “the change they crave will find no answer in nationalism”.

Nationalists, unsurprisingly, won’t find that message very inspiring, but it’s long overdue and, more to the point, could pay electoral dividends over the next few years.