Future of UK Labour party will be in the hands of next Scottish leader

I say goodbye and you say hello. Andrew Milligan/PA

The timing of the resignation of Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale may have come as a surprise, but her decision to step down after just two years has not. The eighth Scottish Labour leader to come and go since the creation of the Scottish parliament in 1999, her legacy is one of managed decline.

Yes, she leaves the party with seven seats in Scotland compared to just one before the recent UK election, but most commentators put this down to UK leader Jeremy Corbyn’s performance. Her real legacy is the party’s slump to third behind the SNP and the Conservatives in the Scottish parliament elections of 2016 and the council elections of 2017.

Davidson: up or down? Jane Barlow/PA

Indeed, the party’s recent revival cemented Dugdale’s problems: she comes from the right of the party and is among Corbyn’s opponents. Her departure creates an opportunity for someone with less baggage to stem the Conservative bounce under Ruth Davidson and take on the flagging SNP. It also matters greatly at UK level: it could yet come to be seen as a key moment in completing the Corbynite left’s takeover of the party.

Could she have stayed?

Dugdale was always likely to be in difficulty after backing Owen Smith for the UK leadership last year, signalling that she thought Corbyn was not fit to continue in the job. The Scottish party did diverge from the rest of Labour by voting for Smith over Corbyn, and Dugdale may have assumed there had been no discernible Corbyn effect in Scotland. She would hardly have been alone in this assumption. She badly miscalculated, however.

This arguably led her to mishandle the UK election. The Scottish Labour left believes the party could have performed even better had it recognised Corbyn’s campaign and policies as a strength and targeted former heartland seats lost to the SNP. A UK leader who appealed both to traditional Labour and younger voters might have been viewed as a positive.

The party has at times given the impression of being more focused on opposing the SNP and independence than its own agenda. This has allowed Labour to be squeezed in Scottish elections by a narrative around the constitution, caught between independence and the more staunchly unionist Conservatives.

The UK election success was unlikely to be repeated in the next Scottish parliamentary election in 2021. The focus would be on Dugdale not Corbyn (or his successor). Whether she could have appealed to those who switched from the SNP to Labour this year is doubtful.

The wider war

The forthcoming leadership election in Scotland will be one of the most important since 1999. Rather than a clash of personalities, it is far more likely to be a battle between the left and right of the party, while the wider UK ramifications should keep the London media interested.

Corbyn’s instincts for changing the party have so far been held at bay by the ruling National Executive (NEC). Until now, Dugdale’s position on the NEC had meant that his opponents controlled the committee by 18 votes to 17.

Her deputy Alex Rowley now holds the balance of power. Mentored by Gordon Brown, his politics are a matter of debate. Fraser Nelson in The Spectator recently claimed he was a Corbynite. I suspect he is more traditional Labour, pro-trade union, pro-home rule, but time will tell.

Alex Rowley. Andrew Milligan/PA

At any rate, a Corbynite successor in Scotland would tilt NEC control in the UK leader’s favour - and Rowley has ruled out putting his name forward for the permanent role. One crucial issue for Corbyn is changing the rules and threshold for leadership candidates to benefit his presumably hand-picked successor.

He famously only got on the ballot in 2015 because certain Labour MPs wanted all wings of the party represented and needed to help the left overcome the current requirement for backing from 15% of MPs. They won’t make this mistake again – they went to court to try and prevent Corbyn standing for re-election last year, when he only got around the threshold rule because he was leader.

At the same time, Scotland matters greatly to Corbyn for other reasons: his relatively weak performance there helped hand 10 Downing Street to Theresa May. He has duly just completed a tour of Scottish constituencies.

Runners and riders

So who could replace Dugdale? The most high-profile figure on the left is probably Neil Findlay MSP. He stood unsuccessfully against Jim Murphy in 2015 and was Corbyn’s campaign chief in Scotland later the same year. He recently made headlines with a memoir in which he strongly attacks Murphy, while he is also convenor of the Campaign for Socialism (CfS).

The CfS could be vital in galvanising voters on the left in Scotland in future: its existence meant that Momentum, Corbyn’s leftist grassroots movement, did not emerge north of the border in the same way as in England and Wales. Many radical Scottish voters were instead drawn into supporting independence.

Yet like Cowley, Findlay has already said he will not stand in the contest. It will be fascinating to see whether he holds to this. He may end up playing kingmaker – perhaps to Richard Leonard, another MSP and CfS member who is a former trade union leader but does not have a high profile. Corbynites in London are now reportedly signalling an interest in a long contest, potentially to let a more junior candidate on the left gain traction – or perhaps to maintain the current NEC up to and through the party conference in late September.

Findlay points the way. Andrew Milligan/PA

From the other side of the party, it is highly likely an anti-Corbyn candidate will stand. Perhaps Ian Murray, Edinburgh South MP. The rules do not prevent an MP from standing, as we saw when Murphy became leader. Murray has been a consistent Corbyn critic. Building a power base outside Westminster in the current climate may appeal to him.

Anas Sarwar. Jane Barlow/PA

The bookmakers’ early favourite is Anas Sarwar. Previously Scottish deputy leader and now Holyrood health spokesman, he could present himself as a transformative candidate for change who could unite and rebrand the Scottish party.

What of the women? A campaign by Jenny Marra, tipped in the past as a potential leader, would prevent accusations of an all-male list. Jackie Baillie is another possibility.

Whoever succeeds will have no small task in reinvigorating and reinventing a party whose traditional strengths in local government and the trade unions have been greatly weakened. Their mission will be to succeed where previous leaders have failed and forge a new coalition of voters in Scotland. It is not for the faint-hearted. Watch this space to see who steps up to the plate in the coming days.