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24 October 2014

Johann Lamont resigns – what now for Scottish Labour?

The departure of the party's leader leaves it without an immediately obvious successor. 

By George Eaton

After a poor performance in the Scottish referendum campaign and weeks of briefing against her, Johann Lamont has resigned as Scottish Labour leader. In an interview with the Daily Record, she says: “I am standing down so that the debate our country demands can take place. I firmly believe that Scotland’s place is in the UK and I do not believe in powers for power’s sake. For example, I think power should be devolved from Holyrood to communities. But colleagues need to realise that the focus of Scottish politics is now Holyrood, not Westminster.”

Lamont, who was elected leader in December 2011, is strikingly critical of the UK Labour leadership, declaring that “the Labour Party must recognise that the Scottish party has to be autonomous and not just a branch office of a party based in London” and that “there is a danger of Scottish politics being between two sets of dinosaurs … the nationalists who can’t accept they were rejected by the people, and some colleagues at Westminster who think nothing has changed.”

A Labour Party spokesman said in response: “She realised it was time for a change in Scotland, she has put the party first. Ed [Miliband] regards her as an honourable woman who has served the party well and we hope will serve the party again in the future.” 

Miliband himself said: “Johann Lamont deserves significant credit for the successful No vote in the Scottish referendum campaign. She campaigned the length and breadth of Scotland making the case for social justice within the United Kingdom. She has led the Scottish Labour Party with determination. I know she will continue to serve her constituents.” 

“Having elected a new leader, I believe the party will show the same will and determination it did in the referendum campaign to help us to victory in the general election of 2015 and the Scottish elections of 2016.” It is notable that he could not summon a greater level of praise than to credit her “determination”. 

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Lamont’s decision is undoubtedly the right one. After its disastrous defeat to the SNP in May 2011, Scottish Labour continued to struggle during her tenure, and with Nicola Sturgeon about to replace Alex Salmond as First Minister, a new figurehead was desperately needed. As I’ve previously reported, the SNP’s post-referendum poll surge threatens to deprieve Labour of more than a dozen Scottish seats in next year’s general election. Indeed, as one MP pointed out to me tonight, “It could be the difference between Ed becoming PM or the Tories staying the biggest party.” It this, more than anything, that may explain Lamont’s departure. 

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But with just six months remaining until May 2015, and the Holyrood election to follow a year later, the new leader will have to move swiftly to establish themselves. The key question now is whether Lamont will be replaced by an existing MSP, such as the precocious Kezia Dugdale, or the left-leaning shadow health secretary Neil Findlay (who has strong trade union links), or whether a big beast from Westminster, most obviously Gordon Brown or Jim Murphy, is prepared to stand. Both Brown and Murphy have previously ruled themselves out despite pleas to take over, but the latter, in particular, may now reconsider. The party’s impressive and energetic deputy Anas Sarwar, the MP for Glasgow Central (who will serve as interim leader), is another potential replacement. 

The defining task for whoever succeeds Lamont will be to recapture the social democratic territory so effectively colonised by the SNP and to rebuild Scottish Labour, which has fewer than 13,000 members (compared to the SNP’s 82,000), as a grassroots movement distinct from Westminster.