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20 October 2017

The next Scottish Labour leader will be the best at signing up new members

The leadership contest has been dubbed “survival of the riggest”.

By James millar

On the face of it Scottish Labour’s latest leadership contest is an unseemly and low rent affair with both candidates – Richard Leonard and Anas Sarwar – threatening to clype on each other over private conversations, accusations of rigging the contest and a whiff of racism.

A senior source in the Westminster party cast his eyes north and dubbed it “survival of the riggest”. You can perhaps judge how far a party has fallen by the quality of the puns they can generate.

However, a little time and attention yields wider lessons.

This leadership battle is a genuine contest. Scottish Labour may have had a helluva turnover of bosses in the last few years but generally the elections have been one-horse affairs won at a canter. That’s largely been down to the existence of an obvious successor, rather than an outstanding candidate.

By the time Kezia Dugdale packed in the leadership for love at the fag end of summer, the party had entirely detached from anything obvious.

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So Leonard and Sarwar are involved in a proper ding dong.

And that is, once again, because of Ed Miliband’s excellent electoral innovation that brought us Jeremy Corbyn Labour leader. (So in a sense it’s all former Falkirk MP Eric Joyce’s fault – if he hadn’t punched a Tory a lot of things would not have happened).

The Scottish contest has normalised the situation that the winner will not be the person with the widest electoral appeal or the winningest arguments, it’ll be the person who can sign up enough new members at the knock down rate.

Labour’s membership has swollen in the last few weeks. Initially this was thought to favour left-wing Leonard, who was expected to benefit from a massive tranche of trades unionists who had joined in time to vote. But constituency parties in Anas Sarwar’s West of Scotland fiefdom are also reporting an uptick in new members. There have been questions asked about that process – the Leonard-supporting secretary of Sarwar’s branch asked HQ to investigate new members that seem to share email addresses and even mobile phone numbers.

This has stirred a race-based hornet’s nest that few seem willing to tackle head on. Shouldn’t Labour welcome the opportunity to elect the first BAME party leader in Britain? Why wouldn’t the BAME community rally to Sarwar’s cause seeing it as an opportunity for high profile representation and a mark of genuine acceptance? Why do some automatically regard that as dodgy?

There is no evidence that either side has not adhered to the rules.

While conventional wisdom has Leonard ahead, a source in the Scottish party that’s seen the sign-up statistics says: “The numbers give Anas a chance.”

And politics is ultimately a numbers game.

The other lesson, an old one, is that Labour can always find a way to blow up and split.

The party returned seven MPs in June, a surprisingly good result. More importantly, for the first time in years the SNP were on the run across Scotland’s central belt.

Three months after arriving in Westminster the seven are already split. The stories wouldn’t be out of place in a primary school playground, with each faction having their own meeting place, talk of refusing to appear at the same social events and behaviour that some feel borders on bullying.

When the Scottish Executive Committee met to decide the rules of the leadership contest the first topic of discussion was whether Blairite MP Ian Murray should be in the room. There seems more interest in toppling him from his ceremonial spot as leader of the Scottish parliamentary Labour party than learning how he survived the 2015 ajockalypse – the only Scottish Labour MP to do so – then turned one of the smallest margins of victory at that election into the biggest majority in the country two years later.

Instead of riding the wave engendered by the general election result the party is engaged in a bun fight.

Whoever wins will face months putting the party back together and healing the divisions the contest has caused. Time that would be better spent building on the election momentum.

While Labour squabbles only the SNP and the Conservatives look like serious parties of government in Holyrood. As one gleeful SNP observer put it: “It’s brilliant. I expected the contest to be bloody, instead it’s been bloody stupid.”


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