It just wouldn’t be the summer without a Labour leadership election. Kezia Dugdale has resigned as leader of Scottish Labour after just over two years in the role and the party north of the border will now elect its 6th leader in as many years. Her departure came as a shock to the media, MSPs and party members alike. It also interrupts a period of detente in Labour's ongoing civil war. What does this mean for the party as a whole?
The Contest to Come
Firstly, there will be a leadership contest. Kezia’s own election to the leadership in 2015 fell alongside the national contest that saw Jeremy Corbyn elected for the first time, but was largely free of the factional wrangling that occupied the party as a whole. This time will be different. Corbyn won support from many party members in Scotland, but the membership there was traditionally more sceptical of his project than other parts of the UK and a majority backed Owen Smith last year. However, with a growing membership of younger, pro-Corbyn figures and after Scottish Labour's gains at the general election, that scepticism may no longer apply. Scottish Labour also has the same electoral system as the UK-wide party, potentially giving a left wing candidate an additional boost from trade unionists and “registered supporters”. This all means that the candidate from the emboldened left of the party will almost certainly start as the favourite.
The challenge for Labour's moderate wing - or for any candidate not tacitly supported by Corbyn and his circle- is to win over the rank and file. That will likely mean expressing support for a united party and quashing any talk of opposition to Jeremy, while also demonstrating that they will be a strong voice for Scotland independently of the ups and downs of UK Labour. However, any contest runs the risk of sparking another round of factional bloodletting. Press reports have already suggested that Dugdale was “hounded out” by the party's left, which never really forgave her for backing Owen Smith. Expect the same forces to demand a certain level of ideological purity from whichever MSP ends up in the top job.
Who will follow Kezia? After Labour's collapse in the 2016 Scottish Parliament election, there is a limited pool of candidates for the party to choose from. Labour now holds just 23 out of 129 seats in the Scottish Parliament. While the rules allow for a Scottish MP to stand for the leadership (as Jim Murphy did in 2014), the next leader will almost certainly come from Holyrood.
As Dugdale’s resignation became public, speculation immediately focused on veteran left wing MSP and former leadership candidate Neil Findlay. His website was “down for maintenance” as Dugdale made her announcement, prompting talk that a quick campaign launch was imminent. However, he has now ruled himself out of the contest. Attention will now turn to three other potential candidates. One name is the frame is Alex Rowley. Currently the Deputy Leader (and now interim leader), Rowley has moved from being an ally of Gordon Brown to a full throated supporter of Jeremy Corbyn. Others have mentioned Richard Leonard, a leading trade unionist who was only elected to Holyrood last year. The best hope for the moderate wing is likely to be Anas Sarwar MSP. He is currently the party’s health spokesperson, and previously served in both Ed Miliband’s Shadow Cabinet and as Deputy Leader in Scotland.
Shifting the Balance
The major challenge for the new leader is to carry on the rebuilding project that Dugdale has started. The next Scottish Parliamentary election isn’t until 2021 but the party faces an uphill battle to move from third place into second, let alone to form a new Government. The party also has to be ready for another snap election in Westminster at any time. For some people within Labour though, the real leadership election’s real prize is an internal one.
One of Kezia Dugdale’s successes was to win Scottish Labour a seat on the UK party’s National Executive - Labour’s governing body. The NEC is currently finely balanced between pro-Corbyn and Corbyn-sceptic factions. The appointment of a Corbynite to the role would shift this balance in the left’s favour. That would open up the possibility of further changes to the way the party works, from lowering the threshold to become a leadership candidate to forcing sitting MPs to face “mandatory reselection” fights ahead of the next general election.
The leadership contest comes at a challenging time for Labour and how the party handles it will be a clear sign of how much progress it has made over the last few years. If Labour can handle an internal election without shattering the careful peace between its warring factions, its recovery in Scotland might be on course to continue. If acrimony ensues, it won’t just be voters in Scotland that question the party’s ability to govern.