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The struggle for the soul of Scottish Labour

As the Scottish Labour Party prepares to elect its depute leader, Conrad Landin looks at the prevailing opinions and political implications of the choice

SPRING fever is gripping the SNP. By the time Scotland’s governing party announces its new depute leader in June, the three candidates will have squared off in at least 10 hustings events.

Meanwhile, Scottish Labour has set a timetable to elect its own number two that stretches even further ahead. Voting will not close until the end of August, under the timetable agreed by Labour’s Scottish executive committee (SEC).

But despite this, Richard Leonard looks increasingly likely to have a deputy in post before Nicola Sturgeon. Because in the four days since Scottish Labour’s election timetable was published, support has been building around just one candidate — interim deputy leader Lesley Laird, who is Labour’s shadow Scotland secretary at Westminster.

With Scottish Labour’s ideological divide every bit as significant as that faced by the Westminster party, this may appear surprising. At Scottish Labour’s conference in Dundee last month, figures from its traditional right-wing establishment sought to challenge Leonard’s policy on Brexit — seeking to commit the party to off-the-shelf single market and customs union membership.

They were unsuccessful. Delegates endorsed a unity statement from the SEC which pushed the pro-single market motion off the agenda. But the row still dominated the conference and, of course, the coverage in the Scottish press.

Laird, the former deputy leader of Fife council, is no Corbynista — but she has been loyal to Labour’s left leadership since she unexpectedly won back Gordon Brown’s old seat of Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath in last year’s Westminster election.

The fact that Brown has now endorsed her, alongside his unlikely bedfellows of Neil Findlay and other key figures on the Scottish left, is being touted as a sign of her broad appeal. Monica Lennon, who speaks for Scottish Labour on communities and was expected to throw her hat in the ring, has also backed Laird.

“Lesley has experience in local government, and has very quickly established herself as a very impressive MP and a key player in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet,” Findlay says. “For those reasons and many more, I think she’s the best candidate.”

Laird could still face a challenge from the right — with the names of MSPs Jackie Baillie and Pauline McNeill still in the rumour mill.

But neither has come forward so far. Some see this as a sign the right know they could not win a deputy leadership contest, and would rather hedge their bets with a unity candidate than see their own flag-bearer crushed.

A senior Scottish Labour source says an uncontested election would help Leonard overcome the divisions that have persisted since Leonard’s election — which followed years of right-wing dominance in the Scottish party.

“It’s very much about ensuring that what the Labour Party is focused on is getting behind the leadership of Richard Leonard and Corbyn, and getting a positive vision out there,” the source says.

Not everyone agrees. One prominent grassroots activist sees it as “another creeping sign of the new dull consensus” in Scottish Labour.

This campaigner thinks the left’s identity is getting lost as the new leadership muddles along and attempts to keep rightwingers on side.

“It’s disappointing Lesley’s candidacy has been marked by claims for technocratic competency and very little political substance — but the left has rushed behind her anyway,” he adds.

But while acknowledging Laird is from the “soft left,” the senior party source says the frontrunner “understands why she was elected” in Labour’s unexpected surge last year, and “supports the direction of travel” under the left leadership.

Moreover, the source says there was no obvious candidate of the left, and notes the importance of the new deputy being a woman.

Labour has faced criticism for its male-dominated leadership at Westminster and Holyrood. The previous deputy leader, Alex Rowley, was suspended last autumn following allegations he had sent abusive texts to a former partner — which he denies.

The SNP’s contest will see economy secretary Keith Brown challenged by activist Julie Hepburn and councillor Chris McEleny — who has called for a new independence referendum within 18 months.

The possibility of sparks over the saltire has made some Labour figures think a quick coronation would be no bad thing.

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