Scottish Labour needs an interim leader before worrying about who should challenge for First Minister next time round, writes IAN SMART


The Scottish Labour Party is irrelevant to the Government of Scotland. Not for ever but for the moment.

Iain Gray did well at First Minister’s questions last Thursday but the guy who was never truly Tomorrow’s First Minister is now indubitably Yesterday’s man. Real Scottish politics is all about the governing party;  they set, or at least create the agenda. Last week, they did so as a result of the First Minister’s ill-advised and intemperate attack on the legal profession and the independent judiciary. I suspect they will do so  in the week to come as we watch the unravelling  of their ill-thought out sectarianism legislation which, insofar as it doesn’t simply declare to be against the law activity which is patently against the law already, otherwise accidently criminalises freedom of expression and makes singing “Sheep shagging bastards” at Aberdeen Fans and “All hibees are gay” at Hibernian fans offences punishable by five years imprisonment.

However, this blog is not an arbitrary reflection on events and this misconceived legislation is more than capable of falling apart without my assistance. Rather, my own purpose is aimed at trying to assist the Scottish Labour Party. And one of the first things any party needs is a leader.

So where are we now in that process? Well, so far, we don’t yet have any agreement as to the vacancy which will exist when Iain goes; as to who should then be entitled to vote in the contest to succeed him or even as to what the winner’s task should be once elected, we are in a state of complete disarray; that, ironically, is the one matter on which we are all agreed.

Now, I have previously suggested that we should reach a temporary fix by simply electing a leader of the Labour Holyrood group. Suffice to say, this does not seem to be a proposal which is finding favour. “The party” apparently needs a leader because such is the inadequacy of the activist layer, only a leader can “force through” the necessary changes. Quite who these changes are being resisted by is less clear. It appears to be “them”; them being those whose current stewardship of the Scottish Party has proved to be such an unparalleled success.

Anyway, it appears from my various contacts that the need for a leader is something which must be taken as a given. A bit like 1920s Italy.
So, what is this person to lead?  It appears to be one of the few of the areas of limited agreement that it should be the whole of the Scottish Labour Party. I concur, pausing only to observe that this must then include those who represent the party at Westminster. All of them.

And who should select that leader? The current electoral  college is a farce. It might just be possible to justify a situation whereby the elected members section was reserved to those elected to Holyrood, or even  open to all elected members, including councillors, but a section which will, under current circumstance, give Westminster MPs a majority share in who should represent us in the Holyrood Parliament? You couldn’t make it up. And it will become more farcical still if some, but not all, MPs voluntarily excuse themselves from the process.

As for the Trade Union section… well, as somebody recently said, he who pays the piper calls the tune. But this set up is a hang over from a different age. I simply don’t have time to analyse the numerous ways in which it is now an anachronism. Suffice to say, it is.

No, the leader of the Scottish Labour Party should be elected by the members of the Scottish Labour Party. That we need a lot more of these members, many of whom should be drawn from trade union activists, is a longer term project, although one I would hope the leader would regard as a priority. But more on that at another time.

So, what should the leader’s task be? It should be first and last, to sort out the Scottish Labour Party. It should not even start to be positioning themselves  to be a challenger for First Minister in five years’ time. There is a film in which somebody (I can’t remember if its Mel Gibson or John Travolta) is struck by lightining and transformed from a car mechanic into a nuclear physicist (Note from Editor: it was John Travolta in the movie, “Phenomenon”). Perhaps one of those potentially standing as candidates  will have a similar experience. That certainly appears to be our best hope, if selecting a First Ministerial challenger is what we are determined on at this time. There are some good new  people in the group, but none who could stand credibly within months of first being elected. And there are simply none of the survivors who have all, or even most, of the necessary attributes. There, I’ve said it.

But there are those who do have the right ideas about what needs to be sorted out and who could do a perfectly competent caretaker job while that was accomplished. So whoever is prepared to put themselves forward on that basis will get my support.

Now, that implies a later contest to select a candidate for First Minister. I will return as to how and when that might be organised.


Ian Smart is a lawyer and founder member of Scottish Labour Action. He is also a Past President of the Law Society of  Scotland. Follow Ian on Twitter at @IanSSmart. This post was originally published on Ian’s blog.

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12 thoughts on “Waiting for a leader

  1. Who needs a leader? Who needs credibility? Who needs dynamism? Well not now. Some time in the future. Scottish independence? The SNP will wait till we sort ourselves out. Come on!

  2. Ian a very interesting take on the current predicament.

    It will take time to sort out a method that works but Scotland does need to appoint a Scottish Leader from within the party and that has to be a Scottish MP from Westminster. Donald Dewar covered this when he was appointed First Minister so there is already a precedent and with the new intake of MSPs’ it is going to take time for them to settle into their new remit as you rightly point out.There can be a leader of the Labour Group at the Parliament but overall the situation lends itself to someone from Westminster.
    The party needs someone with that type of experience and when the time is right that person has to stand for election for the Scottish Parliament when the occasion arises in a bye-election. Once this has been completed the leader unites all sections of the party in Scotland from councillors to MSPs’ to MPs’ and MEPs’ as the elected representatives of the Labour Party and draws each of these elements together and establishes a broad front where everyone is saying the same things. It’s a big task but it has to be done otherwise the party’s over.

  3. Glad to hear from someone else who is uncomfortable with the idea of a Scottish Party Leader who can be our very own Tony Blair. Sure, we need someone with Blair’s ability to communicate across class and country. But we also need a Scottish Party Leader who can put in place a professional campaign team and stand up to the various vested interests who dont want change. Above all though, a leader who has the confidence in engaged party members, community activists and the rest of us at the grass roots to give us some power and influence back in OUR party. There is talent, insight and energy aplenty which needs to be combined with our elected representatives – Holyrood, Westminster and Councils – not sidelined and expected just to be the door-knockers and envelope stuffers come campaign time.

  4. You say:
    ‘So, what is this person to lead? It appears to be one of the few of the areas of limited agreement that it should be the whole of the Scottish Labour Party. I concur, pausing only to observe that this must then include those who represent the party at Westminster. All of them.’

    So does that mean that if Labour win at Westminster and they have a Scottish MP as Prime Minister then the Labour boss in the ‘pretendy wee’ parliament will be able to tell him/her what to do?

    Talk about dancing to a Scottish jig.

    Waiting for a leader? Holding out for a hero, more like.

    (And maybe this hero will return Scottish Labour to its core values, socialism and Home Rule – its the only way for re-election.)

  5. It hurts me to say there is no talent in the labour msp ranks.

    we desperately need labour mps to stand for holyrood.

  6. Ian- it’s interesting that you think it needs a “politician” to sort out the Scottish Labour Party…….! I have always wondered why we have a default position in the party that “politicians” should be appointed to any party position irrespective of whether they are qualified. We have “politicians” carrying out a review, we had “politicians” running the election campaign and so on. Our future Leader in Scotland will be the candidate for First Minister at the next election. It is the one job that you have to be an MSP to apply for (albeit you don’t need to be elected until the next election). Therefore, to argue that the “politicians” should do every other job other than this lacks any logic!

    I am also confused by the term Leader of the Scottish Labour Party. It has become a popular default position by people calling for the Leader of Labour in the Scottish Parliament to be renamed Scottish Labour leader. Im not convinced people have thought this through. If this person becomes the Scottish Labour leader where does this leave our current UK Leader Ed Miliband? If he is no longer Leader of the Scottish Labour Party then the next time we have a UK Leadership election- scottish members shouldn’t have a vote- after all he or she is no longer Leader of the party in Scotland? Why are people calling, not for a devolved Scottish Labour Party leader but apparently an independent Scottish Labour Party leader- even although we dont live in an independent Scotland. Sorry Im just not buying this kneejerk reaction- it’s needs better thought out than the proposals so far.

  7. Jason: It could be that they call for a Scottish leader because until they do, the comparison with the SNP will always be that the Scottish leader of Labour is doing what the English leader wants, because they know best what’s good for us, even if they are actually concentrating of the South East of England’s 35 million people… as opposed to our 5 million.

    What is needed in Scotland is not usually what is needed in the SE of England.

    The recent study by academics on the results of the last election (analysed on newsnight yesterday (Monday) showed that one of the things the public liked about the SNP was the fact that they could be trusted to stand up for Scotland.

  8. I have listened in the last hour to Ian Davidson, Labour MP, describing live in the House of Commons more than once the SNP as “Neo-Fascist”.

    Can anyone explain to me how such an utterance can be acceptable from the the lips of a prominent “Scottish” Labour MP against a party which has just received 45% of the vote? It is clearly not good politics, as many even beyond the 45% will be offended.

    I hope that you are prepared to publish this submission and I also hope that at least some of your party will have the decency to repudiate this comment by no less a figure than the Chairman of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs.

  9. Unparliamentary language

    It is expected that the proceedings of Parliament will be conducted in a courteous and good tempered manner.

    Criticism and accusations are permitted (often under the cover of parliamentary privilege) but certain types of language are considered too abusive.
    MPs should not:

    call another member a liar
    suggest another MP has false motives
    describe another member as “drunk”
    misrepresent another MP’s language
    use abusive or insulting language.

    If an MP uses unparliamentary language during debates the speaker will ask the member concerned to withdraw what has been said.

    Terms of abuse that have been ruled as out of order include coward, hooligan, rat and traitor.

    If an MP refuses the Speaker may “name” them, meaning that the member will be asked to leave the House and is suspended for five sitting days.


    It seems that all the above are examples of Unparliamentary Language, although it seems that it’s acceptable for MPs to accuse other parties of “neo-fascism”.

    Anybody on “Labourhame” care to share their thoughts on Ian Davidson’s little outburst during the Scotland Bill debate in the Westminster Parliament tonight?

    Not only has he lowered the tone of the whole discussion about the future of Scotland with these outrageous comments, but insulted all those Scots who fought in World War II and also happen to support the idea of an independent Scotland.

    For all the talk of making positive cases for the union on this website, I see very little evidence of it – only bitterness and hate, and from people in high elected office who really should know better.

    1. Did you see the context, though? he was being shouted down by several SNP members (from a sedentary position!) – hence the reason for his intemperate outburst.

      He shouldnt have said what he said, but he was pushed into making his outburst – which was no doubt the intent of the SNP MPs.

  10. In some ways having a “temporary” leader sounds good – but will it really be helpful? Just imagine the reaction from the SNP, every time our leader steps yup to speak they’ll come back with “We’ll respond when your proper leader comes along”.

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