Scottish Labour leadership contest – why it really matters to the rest of the UK

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November 7, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith

Jim Murphy

Sarah Boyack

Neil Findley

Nominations have closed in Scotland for the leadership of the Scottish Labour Party. You may think that this has nothing to do with us down here in London but believe me, it does. The choice that the MPS, MSPs, MEPs, party members and union members make in Scotland has been shown by recent polls to be absolutely vital in terms of how it could influence the UK General Election result. So the direction that Scottish Labour go should be something everyone interested in politics should watch carefully.

Before I talk about the candidates, it is worth pointing out that the leader of the Scottish Labour Party is not just in charge of Labour MSPs in Holyrood, but of ALL Parliamentarians, including Westminster MPs and MEPs in Scotland. So that includes the likes of Gordon Brown, Douglas Alexander and, until retirement, Alistair Darling, even though they are part of Westminster. Given devolution is likely to become even stronger, following the set of rash promises made during the Scottish independence referendum by panicking Westminster leaders, the Scottish Assembly will become increasingly powerful, so one could argue this is more about who wins that election in 2016. But there are still 59 seats at Westminster available in a Scottish constituencies, of which Labour at the moment hold 41. They need to try and retain as many of them as possible in order to have a chance at a majority in 2015, or to even have the most seats. They then need to try and claw back the dominance of the SNP at Holyrood so they at least don’t have a majority anymore. So the stakes are high.

The three candidates are Jim Murphy, Neil Findlay and Sarah Boyack.

Murphy is the most well-known of the candidates. He served in Tony Blair’s government, and has been shadow Defence and Shadow International Development secretary under Ed Miliband. He did very well in the referendum campaign, visiting 100 towns in the last 100 days on his trusty Irn Bru crate. Under Blair’s leadership he supported the Iraq War and the introduction of tuition fees, which won’t make him popular on Scottish doorsteps, particularly with the SNP’s left-leaning bent (even with their promises of corporation tax cuts).

Sarah Boyack is one of Scottish Labour’s most senior MSPs, having been at Holyrood since it was first established in 1999, serving as Minister for Transport, Planning and the Environment. She actually lost her seat to the SNP in 2011, but got into Parliament anyway as one of the MSPs elected through the regional list system, which is the second half of the ‘AMS’ election system used in Scotland. She undertook a review, with Murphy, of why Scottish Labour had done so badly in that election. Her politics are left-wing, and she is particularly known for her commitment to protecting the environment.

Neil Findlay actually wanted Gordon Brown to stand, but given that didn’t happen, he put his name forward. He is a former teacher who has recently served as Shadow Health Secretary.He is the standard bearer of the left wing of the party, so much so that the two major unions in Scotland have already endorsed his candidacy in the literature they are sending out to their members (there is no ‘block vote’ for the unions anymore, each paying member has their own vote’). Findlay believes that the party cannot take on the SNP from any position other than from the left wing. Among a number of policies he has called for has been a commitment in principle to a policy of full employment; establishing a new national house building programme to build new social housing on a “grand scale”; greater efforts to promote the living wage through the use of government and public sector contracts; a wholesale review of the NHS; and establishing a charter of workers’ rights.

In terms of the options for a Scottish Labour, it is worth using what Neil Findlay has said in terms of why they should attack the SNP from the left. “Those on the left should remember this. The SNP is not a social-democratic party. It is a nationalist party that is at the same time populist. It seeks links with the trade union movement — but also with big business. Its economic policy documents show it to be essentially neo-liberal, ultimately defending the privileges of the market.”

Supporters of Jim Murphy could argue that, first of all, someone wrong and experienced is needed to take on both Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP, but also the Labour central office in Westminster that has been treating Scottish Labour like a ‘branch office’ according to outgoing leader Johann Lamont. They might also point out that it will be difficult to tack so far to the left as the Scottish Labour Party if the Party in Westminster remain so near the centre as they do…such a radical divergence may not be believed by the electorate. Furthermore, the SNPs positioning of themselves on the left has left a vast swathe of potential voters for Murphy to pick up. 17% of the electorate voted Conservative at the 2010 election. They may realise that the Conservatives are unlikely to get a seat in Scotland so may switch to a Murphy-led Scottish Labour Party as the most likely way of getting policies they can stomach. Yes, Murphy has his vote for Iraq and Tuition fees on his shoulders – but in effect the bad news on him has been “priced in” and many people in politics still seem to feel he will be the best solution for the long term health of Scottish Labour.

Sarah Boyack? It surprised people that she stood, but given her involvement with the party for so long it probably shouldn’t have. She may find a place as a compromise candidate between Murphy and Findlay, but she will hopefully come out with some policy programmes soon, which may help her.

As I said, Scotland is one to watch.

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