Discussions on the future of Scottish Labour, after a disastrous performance in the May Scottish Parliament elections, have been pretty quiet of late. Sarah Boyack and Jim Murphy are still working on their review of the Labour Party in Scotland, but also looming should be a leadership election, with Iain Gray set to stand down in September.
LabourList published a list of the potential runners and riders for any leadership contest back in May, but since then things have been pretty quiet. Until last week, that is, when Glasgow South MP Tom Harris appeared to throw his hat into the ring, telling the BBC he would be interested in the post “if the party would be interested in having me.” Harris also expressed the hope that other prominent Labour Scots, such as Jim Murphy or Douglas Alexander, would stand.
At present, the leader of the Scottish Labour Party must be an MSP, but this could change after the review – the absence of these potential leaders at Holyrood may not be an obstacle to their entering the contest.
However, just because it might be possible for an MP to become leader of the Scottish Labour Party does not mean that it would be desirable; there are a number of reasons why such an arrangment should be avoided, if at all possible.
Firstly, while Alex Salmond successfully worked as SNP leader in absentia from 2004 until 2007, there is no guarantee that this would work for Labour. The effective spin doctors in the SNP and in the ever more nationalist-friendly press would be at pains to undermine both the leader and his chosen representative at Holyrood, highlighting even the tiniest division between the two.
Secondly, any attempt by a new leader to enter the Scottish Parliament via a by-election would surely end in disaster. They couldn’t enter via the resignation of a list MSP, and most of Labour’s remaining constituency seats would be easily reachable by the SNP, especially in the context of a forced by-election. The Nationalists are formidable opponents at any by-election, and for a new leader to potentially lose their first electoral contest would be a PR catastrophe for Scottish Labour dwarfing anything we’ve seen so far.
Thirdly – and most importantly, in my view – appointing a Scottish Labour leader from outside of Holyrood would play directly into the SNP’s hands, by appearing to confirm the prejudice that “all of Labour’s best talent goes to Westminster.” This myth, that the Labour benches at Holyrood are filled with second-rate politicians, is offensive to our hard-working MSPs and cements the perception that Labour is not interested in, and hence cannot deliver for Scotland.
Painting Labour as a party that takes Scotland for granted is a key tactic of the SNP, and surely contributed to our poor election performance in May. To suggest that not one of our 37 MSPs is good enough to lead the party, and we need to draft in someone from outside, would only make it easier for the Nationalists to claim that Labour isn’t interested in Holyrood, and harder for us to regain lost ground in Scotland.
To defeat nationalism, we need to tackle it head-on, not confirm its barest prejudices. The Labour leader in Scotland should be a current Member of the Scottish Parliament – anything else, and we’ve lost the battle almost before it’s begun.