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Who will succeed Kezia Dugdale as Scottish Labour leader? The runners and riders

Two of Jeremy Corbyn's allies north of the border seem unlikely to stand. 

Kezia Dugdale’s resignation as Scottish Labour leader opens up a vacuum at the top of the party in Holyrood.

Neil Findlay, a Corbyn ally, has publicly ruled himself out. Alex Rowley, a Corbyn-friendly MSP with a long connection to Gordon Brown, is already in pole position as deputy leader, but is said to have decided not to stand.

So who will take over, and can they prevent Scottish Labour returning to being a party branch shop?

Anas Sarwar

In 2014, the then-Glasgow Central MP was so excited at the prospect of ascending the ranks of the Scottish Labour party that he… quit as deputy leader. He remained interim leader until Jim Murphy was elected, with Kezia Dugdale as his deputy.

In fact, there was a reason for Sarwar’s reticence – he was an MP rather than an MSP. The bloodbath of 2015 sorted that problem. He lost his Westminster seat, but clambered back into politics in the Scottish Parliament elections of 2016. “He’s got a solid bedrock in Glasgow,” one Labour insider said. “Anas is the kind of guy who won’t sit back and live an easy life. I think he’ll be putting things in place.”

Viewed as a moderate, who signed a letter calling on Corbyn to reconsider his position after the Brexit vote, Sarwar has nevertheless recently been singing Jeremy Corbyn’s praises, and his election would be a significant boost for the representation of ethnic minorities in Scottish politics. At the same time, he might have to revisit his explanation for why he sends his son to a private school.

Richard Leonard

Leonard only became an MSP in the 2016 Holyrood elections, but as a former GMB union organiser and onetime Tony Benn chauffeur, he is a Labour veteran. His intellectual credentials include being a member of the Red Paper Collective, and his political interests include workers’ rights and combatting austerity.

Seen as an ally of the Corbyn team, Leonard recently appeared alongside shadow Chancellor John McDonnell at a conference in Scotland. Along with Rowley and Findlay, he signed a letter in support of Corbyn during the post-Brexit revolt.

According to a Labour source, Leonard is “very nice and very able”, but might not fancy a job that has exhausted three leaders in six years.

Monica Lennon

Those Scottish Labour members worried about the spectre of yet another senior Labour position joining the Middle Aged White Man Club may be tempted to flock behind Monica Lennon, who became an MSP in 2016.

A former councillor and planning officer, Lennon has gained prominence as a campaigner against period poverty. She is an ally of Dugdale, but also welcomed Corbyn’s recent visit and crucially did not sign the open letter against him. A Labour insider described her as a “dark horse” but unlikely to beat Sarwar.

Jackie Baillie

A Holyrood veteran (she was first elected in 1999), Baillie helped to support the leadership through the turbulent months of 2014, but ruled herself out of a leadership bid. Like Sarwar, she publicly called on Corbyn to reconsider his position after the Brexit vote. As the MSP for Dumbarton, the Faslane naval base is in her constituency and she has backed the renewal of the Trident nuclear system.

Baillie is seen as a competent politician, who has nevertheless made enemies during her career, and is unlikely to triumph in the current political environment.

James Kelly

A veteran MSP, Kelly is famed for being booted out of the Holyrood debating chamber after refusing to sit down. He is part of the Scottish Labour shadow cabinet, and was singled out for praise by Dugdale in her resignation letter.

Kelly signed the letter calling on Corbyn to reconsider his position, but today he is an enthusiastic retweeter of pro-Corbyn media. Nevertheless, he is seen as a polarising figure even outside Labour’s internal politics, due to his campaign to repeal the anti-bigotry Football Law and his robust attacks on the SNP.

Jenny Marra

The MSP for North East Scotland has been touted as a future star, and has been floated as a possible candidate, although she has been less high profile over the last year. 

All the same, having avoided the biggest clashes of 2016, she may be able to use that to her advantage.

Elaine Smith

Should a candidate with suitable Corbynite credentials fail to stand, Smith may suddenly come to the fore as a voice of the left.

A Labour source said: “She might throw her hat into the ring, the way that back in the day, Corbyn and John McDonnell used to, thinking they wouldn’t win. Only in her case, she definitely won’t win.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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What has happened to the Liberal Democrats?

As Brexit nears, Vince Cable is struggling – but his is a poisoned inheritance.

During the coalition years, Iain Duncan Smith came up with a plan: if unemployed people went on a demonstration, and the police stopped them for any reason, the officer should pass their names on to the Department for Work and Pensions, which could then freeze their benefits. After all, the minister’s reasoning went, if you had time to protest, you weren’t actively seeking work.

This was just one of the many David Cameron-era Tory proposals that the Liberal Democrats quashed before it ever saw the light of day. Every Lib Dem who worked in the coalition, whether as a minister or a special adviser, has a horror story about a policy they stopped or watered down – and usually the papers to prove it, too.

And so from time to time, Vince Cable’s team needs to respond to a news story by plundering their archives for anti-Tory material. A month or so ago, a former Lib Dem staffer got a phone call from the party’s press operation: could someone answer some questions about their time in government? To which the ex-staffer said: OK, but since you’re calling on a withheld number, you’ll need to get someone to vouch for you.

Perhaps, the former staffer suggested, Phil Reilly, the Lib Dems’ communications chief and a veteran of the party machine, was around? No, came the answer, he has moved on. What about Sam Barratt? Out at a meeting. Was Paul Haydon there? No. Haydon – who worked for the party’s last member of the European parliament, Catherine Bearder, before joining the press office – had moved on, too. After a while, this ex-staffer gave up and put the phone down.

The really troubling thing about this story is that I have heard it three times from three former Liberal Democrat aides. The names change, of course, but the point of the story – that the party machine has been stripped of much of its institutional memory – stays the same. The culprit, according to the staffers who have spoken to me, is Vince Cable. And the exodus is not just from the press office: the party’s chief executive, Tim Gordon, is among the heavyweights to have departed since the 2017 election.

Is this fair? Tim Farron, Cable’s predecessor as party leader, did not share Nick Clegg’s politics, but he recognised that he was inheriting a high-quality backroom team and strove to keep the main players in place. Reilly, who is now at the National Film and Television School, wrote not only Clegg’s concession speech at the general election in 2015, but Farron’s acceptance speech as leader a few months later.

The Liberal Democrats’ curse is that they have to fight for every minute of press and television coverage, so the depletion of their experienced media team is particularly challenging. But their problems go beyond the question of who works at the George Street headquarters in London. As party veterans note, Cable leads a parliamentary group whose continued existence is as uncertain as it was when Paddy Ashdown first became its leader in 1988. The difference is that Ashdown had a gift for identifying issues that the main political parties had neglected. That gave him a greater media profile than his party’s standing warranted.

There is no shortage of liberal and green issues on which Cable could be more vocal: the right to die, for instance, or the legalisation of cannabis. He could even take a leaf from Ashdown’s playbook and set out a bolder approach on income tax than either Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn. While none of these issues command anything resembling majority support, they are distinctly more popular than the Liberal Democrats. They would also get the party talked about more often. At present, it is being ignored.

These complaints will receive a greater airing if the Lib Dems have a disappointing night at the local elections on 3 May. The party hopes to gain ground in Manchester and retain the Watford mayoralty, but fears it will lose control of the council in Sutton, south-west London. It expects to make little headway overall.

So what else could be done? If you gather three Liberal Democrats in a room, you will hear at least five opinions about what Cable is getting wrong. But the party’s problems neither start nor end with its leader. Cable inherits two difficult legacies: first, thanks to Farron, his party is committed to an all-out war against Brexit. In 2016, that policy successfully gave a shattered party a reason to exist, and some hoped that the Lib Dems could recover ground by wooing disgruntled Remainers. Last year’s general election changed the game, however. The two big parties took their highest share of the vote since 1970, squeezing the Lib Dems to a dozen MPs. That simply doesn’t give the party the numbers to “stop Brexit” – therefore, they feel to many like a wasted vote.

Why not drop the commitment to a second in/out EU referendum? Because one of Farron’s successes was attracting pro-European new members – and thanks to the party’s ultra-democratic constitution, these hardcore Remainers can keep that commitment in place for as long as they wish.

The legacy of coalition is even more difficult to address. In policy terms, the Lib Dems can point to great achievements in government: across every department, there are examples of Duncan Smith-style cruelties that the party prevented.

Yet there is no electoral coalition to be won from voters who are pleased and grateful that hypothetical horrors didn’t come to pass. More than half of voters still regard the Lib Dems’ participation in coalition as a reason not to back the party. That might change as the memories fade, but for now the party’s last spell in government is a significant barrier to gaining the chance to have another one. Even a fresh, young and charismatic leader – with a superb, experienced team – would struggle with such a poisoned inheritance. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn ultimatum