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30 August 2017

Four thoughts on the state of the race to replace Kezia Dugdale

The resignation has surprised everyone, even some of Dugdale's closest aides. 

By Stephen Bush

Some early thoughts on the conversations I’ve had today about the Scottish Labour leadership. 

Kezia Dugdale has surprised everyone

I’m reliably informed that even Dugdale’s aides, Martin McCluskey, her political director, and her policy chief, Gina Davison, were kept in the dark about the move and found out via e-mail. Neither McCluskey, who automatically loses his job as a result of the resignation, nor Davison had spoken to Dugdale directly since the news came out as of this afternoon. 

Although there was a widespread expectation that the question of who leads Labour in Scotland would be brought to a head due to the longstanding ideological differences between Jeremy Corbyn and Dugdale, and the criticism of the conduct of the election campaign in Scotland – one new Scottish Labour MP, Paul Sweeney, said that the contest was fought like “an Edinburgh South by-election”, with too much focus on holding onto Ian Murray’s Morningside seat – the resignation was very much done for the reasons in Dugdale’s statement.  (Although, of course, the prospect of continuing friction and very probably a leadership battle at some point were all background factors).

This has caught everyone on the hop

As a result, everyone has been caught out slightly, as a contest that was widely expected to happen at some point is instead happening now.

That’s one reason why a slew of potential candidates – Monica Lennon, Neil Findlay, and Alex Rowley, the deputy leader – have ruled themselves out.

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The leader’s office may, as a result, once again lose out

All things being equal, the next Scottish Labour leader should be more sympathetic to Corbyn. At the least, they will have made sympathetic noises about the Labour leader while running. Labour’s natural instinct for unity means that the relationship between the leadership north and south of the border will be less fraught than it was before.

Yes, in 2016, Scotland was the only part of the United Kingdom where Owen Smith triumphed over Corbyn, but the membership continues to become more Corbynite, as electoral success and the exit of anti-Corbyn members turns the party less Corbynsceptic. Added to that, registered supporters will be in play for the first time in this election.

But in a race that ought to be a slam dunk for the candidate with the Corbyn imprimatur may see a non-Corbynite triumph in part because of the lack of preparation and a more troubling problem: the Labour left’s missing generation of 40something politicians, both in Westminster and the devolved legislatures, but equally crucially in the party’s local government base. That lack of a large candidate class is one reason why parliamentary selections at by-elections in the last parliament returned a wholly Corbynsceptic intake.    

Although this changes the balance of power on the NEC, that may not last for very long

All things being equal, that ought to mean that the party’s ruling executive goes from being evenly split between Corbynites and Corbynsceptics to a majority of one for the Labour leader. It will, at any rate, do so while Rowley remains acting leader.

Having a majority on Labour’s national executive committee makes it easier to pass rule changes at Conference as a motion that has been approved by the NEC has fewer hurdles to overcome than one that has not. However, an NEC-backed rule change can still be defeated on the conference floor.

All things being equal, having an extra vote around the NEC table is a big win for Corbyn.  There’s a big “but” though: there is a strong chance that the Labour leader will lose a reliable vote from the trade union section. Due to trade union mergers, Unite the Union now has four votes as Ucatt, the construction union, is now part of Unite. It is very likely, but not certain, that this seat will go to another of the big trade unions, all of which are swing votes on the NEC, bringing it back to hung.

There is also the slim but fairly unlikely possibility that the number of positions elected by local government representatives will be increased, which would in the short term at least likely establish a narrow Corbynsceptic majority on the ruling executive.