Scottish Labour leadership: Who could be in the running?

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 30 August 2017 in Inside Politics

Analysis: A look at the possible runners for the Scottish Labour leadership

The news that Kezia Dugdale had resigned as Scottish Labour leader spread quickly last night, with the announcement seeming to offer proof that with Parliament back next week, the political holiday is well and truly over.

During a turbulent time as leader Dugdale fought a general election, one Scottish Parliament election, one local election and the EU referendum, as well as playing a key part in the independence referendum. It’s certainly been a busy time and Dugdale could be forgiven for thinking she had done a couple of decades of work in the space of two years.

Despite having criticised the UK leader in the past, there certainly seems to be little in the way of evidence that Dugdale was pushed out by a Corbynista coup, with Dugdale explaining that the death of her close friend, the campaigner Gordon Aikman, had shown her that “time is precious” and leaving her questioning what would be best for the Labour party.


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Whatever the reasons, Dugdale’s resignation means Scottish Labour has now gone through five leaders in ten years. As Holyrood editor Mandy Rhodes pointed out, 13 per cent of all current Scottish Labour MSPs have been leader of the party at some point.

The Executive Committee of the Scottish Labour Party will meet on Saturday 9 September to agree the timetable and process for a leadership election. More details will emerge following the meeting, though Labour sources have confirmed to Holyrood that it will take place through one-member one-vote. Under current rules an MP could run - given his relationship with Jeremy Corbyn, Ian Murray taking over would be entertaining - but given the precedent set by Jim Murphy it seems unlikely.

Yet so far no one has put themselves forward, with Corbyn’s Scottish campaign manager Neil Findlay having already ruled himself out. So who could be in the running?


Anas Sarwar

Anas Sarwar, the son of Labour heavyweight and former Glasgow MP Mohammad Sarwar, has long been tipped for the Labour leadership. Sarwar served as deputy leader of Scottish Labour while sitting in Westminster from 2010-15 as well as becoming shadow minister for international development for a year in 2014. He was also interim leader for a couple of months after Johann Lamont resigned as leader in 2014.

Sarwar is considered to be a savvy political operator, with the Scottish Labour health spokesperson currently the bookies’ favourite to win the contest. But, given he is viewed as closer to the Blairite end of the Labour spectrum than the rest of his rivals, Corbyn’s relative success as leader of the UK party could hinder the ambitious MSP’s ambitions for the top job.


Alex Rowley

Previously the leader of Fife Council, Alex Rowley was elected to the Scottish Parliament as regional MSP for Mid Scotland & Fife in May 2016. In 2017 his daughter Danielle Rowley was elected as MP for Midlothian in the snap election.

Rowley won the deputy leadership at the same time Dugdale took over as leader, with his position as depute seeing him placed at the top of the party list for the 2016 election.

A long-term ally of former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Rowley stirred controversy by saying he would not oppose a second independence referendum after the Brexit vote. Explaining his thinking, he said: “It is difficult to assess what will be in the best interests of the people of Scotland but we can set some guiding principles. These should include what is best in terms of our economy and jobs, pensions and dignity in retirement, free high quality education, health and public services and the security of our nation.”

If Rowley decided to stand for leader he would need to resign as deputy. But given he won his seat through being placed at the top of the Mid Scotland & Fife list, losing the leadership contest could put his chances at the next Scottish Parliament election at risk. Labour sources have suggested Rowley, the current interim leader, will not stand but the MSP himself has yet to make a statement.


Richard Leonard

A former GMB political officer in Scotland and head of economics for the STUC, the Scottish Labour shadow economy minister has a long history of left-wing activism north of the border, even if he only made the jump into party politics in 2011, when he contested the Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley constituency for the Scottish Parliament.

But Leonard has worked within the Scottish Labour party for decades, having served as party chair from 2002-2003, and been a member of the executive committee since 1997. And while bookies point to Anas Sarwar as the favourite, with Neil Findlay having ruled himself out and Leonard sitting closer to the groups that pushed Corbyn’s 2017 surge in England, the relatively unknown MSP could well win the contest – if he decides to stand.


Monica Lennon

Like the other possible candidates, Monica Lennon has only been in the Scottish Parliament since 2016. Having previously served as a councillor for Hamilton North and East, Lennon did not arrive in Holyrood with the same public profile as the other possible candidates. But the MSP drew attention through effective campaigns against issues such as period poverty – she is pushing for legislation which would put a legal duty on ministers to provide universal free sanitary products – while also seeking to move away from some of the tribalism often displayed in the chamber.

Lennon has been tipped as a future leader, though this contest may come too soon for her. In an interview with Holyrood earlier this year the party’ shadow minister for inequality said the best piece of advice she had heard was to believe in herself. She said: “I had a lot of good support and advice from women in my life which helped me to get into politics and to get elected but much of that applies in your daily life. It’s about being confident and not doubting myself, and also trusting your instincts and believing in yourself.” Whether those instincts will lead to a leadership bid is still unclear.


Daniel Johnson

The shadow education minister won the Edinburgh South in the 2016 Scottish Parliament election – the only seat held by the party during its disastrous showing in the 2015 general election. Explaining how he managed to win the seat, amid another disastrous campaign for Labour in 2016, the former parliamentary assistant to Nigel Griffiths said: “If there is one lesson my victory offers, it is Labour needs to be a little bit smarter in tying its message to different people. We very carefully considered how to pitch the national Labour message.”

Like Lennon, Johnson looks a less likely bet than Leonard, Sarwar or Rowley. He backed Owen Smith in the UK contest and whether his close relationship with Dugdale would help or hinder a leadership bid is debatable.

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