How the Scottish Labour Leadership contest should look (but won’t)

Perhaps the greatest service Tom Harris has ever done for the Scottish Labour Party is to try to flush out contenders for the Scottish Labour Party’s leadership, by declaring that if no one good stands – he will. While Deputy Leader Johann Lamont is widely expected to run others potential contenders like Ken MacIntosh, Jackie Baillie and Hugh Henry seem to have gone off the idea – and who can blame them?

Despite resistance from some MSPs the expectation is that the review led by Jim Murphy and Sarah Boyack is to recommend that the leader of the Scottish Labour Party can be drawn from elected representatives in The Scottish Parliament, Westminster, or the European Parliament. In theory that could mean a busy leadership contest with a wide variety of candidates, and a genuine debate about the future of the party – but I fear that may be wishful thinking. Here’s who I think should run, but probably won’t:

David Martin MEP

David is one of the most senior Members of the European Parliament, having been elected for the Lothians Constituency in 1984. He was Vice-President of the European Parliament and is currently a senior member of the Parliament’s influential Trade Committee. He could certainly take-on Salmond in Statesmanliness, having been one of Scotland’s overseas representatives for the best part of 30 years.

Now based in Bearsden David straddles the East-West divide quite nicely. He’d make an ideal candidate for Strathkelvin and Bearsden, as well as the West of Scotland list. Though he can often appear decidely middle-class he’s imbued with the sort of thoughtful socialism which the party has sorely lacked in recent years. He also appears to be well regarded by the press which, if this year’s election taught us anything, is a must.

Duncan McNeil MSP

My real outsider. A former colleage once said to me of Duncan McNeil that “along with Frank [McAveety], he has the very best grasp of ordinary voters out of everyone in the Scottish Parliament” – I couldn’t but agree. Absolutely no-one is suggesting Duncan as a potential leadership candidate but in my opinion, they should be.

Though he’s not necessarily a household name, Duncan is popular and often father-like figure within the Labour Group in the Scottish Parliament. A former organiser with the GMB, he was Government Chief Whip under Jack McConnell and was elected Chair of the Scottish Parliamentary Labour Party in the last Parliament. Duncan also played a prominent role in the recent Inverclyde by-election, and I’m pretty certain that were it not for his personal popularity Labour would have lost Greenock and Inverclyde to the SNP in May.

At 61, Duncan is unlikely to have the appetite to run, however were he to do so he’d bring a much-needed dose of reality to the debate about the future of the party.

Margaret Curran MP

Margaret Curran has been touted as a potential leader of the Scottish Party since she was Communities Minister in Jack McConnell’s Government. She was one of the favourites to succeed Wendy Alexander until she was harangued into running in the Glasgow East by-election, all-but ending any change of her ever leading the party. With the north-east of Glasgow losing a seat in the Scottish Parliament Margaret’s eventual election to the House of Commons helped avoid a messy selection battle between herself, Paul Martin and Frank McAveety.

Though she’s only been an MP for little more than a year Margaret has settled well into the Commons (and eventually got out of the habit of call the Speaker “Presiding Officer”!) Word on the street is she’s Ed Miliband’s go-to-gal on matters north of the border, and should receive the backing of Westminster if she were to throw her hat in the ring.

In government and in opposition the Party’s media team carved out a highly unpleasant “attack dog” image for Margaret, which in my opinion put-off more voters than it impressed. Since leaving the front bench Margaret’s managed to soften her image somewhat to reflect the warm and witty character that she is in reality. She has the experience and fortitude to be credible against Salmond. In addition to being popular with activists (in particular Young Labour and Labour Students) she has the vigour required to shake the party up internally, something which is sorely needed.

While Tom Harris may not be alone in wishing Douglas Alexander or Jim Murphy would stand, they’ve set their sights on senior jobs in the UK Government. If the party wants MP as its leader, it has to be Margaret Curran.

Ken MacIntosh MSP

In the days that followed the election in May Ken emerged as an early favourite for the leadership, though as I mentioned above he seems to have gone off the idea. He recorded an impressive result in May, regaining his notionally Tory Eastwood Constituency and turning a notional 2,000 vote deficit into a 2,000 vote majority – though it must be noted that in a Tory/Labour marginal Ken was fighting a very different fight from most seats in the country.

Prior to his election Ken was a producer with BBC News in London. His experience with the media is immediately apparent, and he impressed many with his witty-yet-considered stint on BBC Scotland’s election coverage. Yet despite his being the Labour Group’s star-performer with the media Ken’s talents have seldom been acknowledged by successive party leaders. Overlooked for ministerial office, the only post he ever held in government was as an unpaid parliamentary aide – a position from which he resigned over hospital re-organisation. Though having never been a minister could actually work in his favour.

From a tactical perspective, I believe that Alex Salmond would find it difficult to work out how to handle Ken. With his cheery persona and ‘family-man’ image (six kids, and counting) Ken could deflect the bluster of Alex Salmond far more effectively than anyone else. If the MSPs are determined to be led by one of their own then they should be doing everything they can to make sure Ken runs.