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Labour would be mad to dump Kezia Dugdale. But accidents can happen…

It is not unknown for leadership speculation to break out during an election campaign that is going badly, but it’s pretty unusual for it to start before the manifesto is launched. Even Michael Foot was allowed to get his “longest suicide note in history” out before the knives went flying. The Scottish Labour Party’s Holyrood manifesto isn’t published until tomorrow, but over the weekend there was renewed briefing from Labour sources about how Kezia Dugdale has lost the plot and could be replaced

The muttering about Ms Dugdale, has been going on sotto voce since the Labour conference in October, but it is now becoming a media “thing”. Ms Dugdale had to make the obligatory “I’m staying put” interview on BBC which is the first sign that things are going seriously awry for a political leader. These things have a habit of becoming self-reinforcing.

So, what’s gone wrong? Well, the fact Labour is vying with the Conservatives for second place in the forthcoming Holyrood election is certainly not a favourable background. But who is responsible for that? It was Ms Dugdale’s predecessor Jim Murphy who presided over Labour’s greatest ever election defeat in May last year when it lost 40 of its 41 Westminster seats.

It’s a fair bet some of the Labour voices muttering about his successor have tried hard to forget that. Though Labour is so addicted to the vice of factionalism it is hard to identify any particular grouping behind the Dump Kezia campaign. There’s the unreconstructed Blairite unionists; the left wing Corbynites, the diehard Brownites, and the council cronyites – to name but a few.

Every party has divisions but when it comes to fratricidal behaviour no one does it better than Labour. Look at the list of Scottish leaders who have had to contend with internal rivalries. Henry McLeish (Officegate) Jack McConnell (Lobbygate), Wendy Alexander (Donorgate). Even Donald Dewar was accompanied by a clutch of resentful Labour voices eager to discuss how useless he was.

Ms Alexander fell to earth in 2008 after she said “bring it on” to an independence referendum. After that remark, it emerged she had received a donation from a businessman who was not a British resident. However, since this donation was for a leadership election campaign that never actually took place, it’s a fair guess party insiders may have been involved in the briefing about it. Ms Alexander resigned after a parliamentary committee suspended her for a day.
One can only speculate on what misfortune might befall Ms Dugdale if things continue as they are. Scottish Labour leaders are more accident prone than Evel Knievel. Labour has had four since 2012. Ms Dugdale has only been in post for nine months. If it gets any worse, Labour will be getting rid of leaders before they take office. This is suicidal, and it’s not as if there is a credible alternative leader.

Look at the likely candidates: Anas Sarwar, the former MP for Glasgow Central, who lost his seat last May and is trying to get into Holyrood on the list. Alex Rowley, the lugubrious deputy leader and former vicar on earth to Gordon Brown, who looks likely to lose his Cowdenbeath seat this time. Finally, Neil Findlay the left wing former leadership contender who lost to Mr Murphy in 2014. Ms Dugdale’s notional rivals are ,quite literally, losers.

She has made mistakes in presentation, such as hinting she might consider voting for independence to keep Scotland in the EU and then reversing that in her Sunday Herald interview. The now abandoned £100 income tax rebate to the low paid was contrived and confused. She is certainly inexperienced, but so arguably is Mr Sarwar who has never been elected to Holyrood.

At least Ms Dugdale is energetic, humorous and up for it. She appeals beyond the traditional party faithful and is trying to make a unionist party relevant to an increasingly nationalist Scotland. By shifting to the left on issues like tax and Trident, she has restored Labour’s political identity and largely ditched the Blairite baggage. Labour is no longer just the party that stood with the Tories in Better Together.

They’d be daft to ditch her like another failed football coach. But don’t count on sanity prevailing if the unthinkable happens and Labour is beaten into third place by the Tories in just over a week. Accidents can happen…

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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