Senior Labour figures in London said the party had little chance of winning power unless it could retake a swath of seats lost to the Scottish National party in 2015, increasing pressure for a fast and smooth leadership contest.
The unexpected capture of six seats in Scotland in June’s general election has convinced senior figures at the party’s headquarters that it is there the next contest will be won or lost.
Its youngest leader since devolution, Dugdale surprised her party by announcing her resignation on Tuesday night. Allies said it was a personal decision, driven by the relentless pace of Scottish and UK politics over the past two years, and exacerbated by tensions with the party leadership in London.
In Dugdale’s resignation letter, she said the loss of a close friend, Gordon Aikman, to motor neurone disease earlier this year had made her reconsider her priorities. “His terminal illness forced him to identify what he really wanted from life, how to make the most of it and how to make a difference,” she said.
Anas Sarwar, Scottish Labour’s health spokesman and son of Mohammed Sarwar, the UK’s first Muslim MP, emerged as the clear early favourite to succeed her after several leading potential candidates from the left ruled themselves out.
Neil Findlay, the MSP who ran Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign in Scotland, confirmed he would not stand. His statement was quickly followed by one from Alex Rowley, Gordon Brown’s former agent, who has taken over as Scottish Labour’s interim leader, ruling out a bid.
Monica Lennon, a recently elected MSP and a rising star on the left who broke ranks by voting for Corbyn in last year’s leadership contest, soon confirmed she would not stand, leaving a rapidly diminishing band of potential candidates.
Although Scottish Labour now has seven MPs at Westminster, the centre of gravity in Scottish politics has now shifted to Holyrood, effectively leaving party members a pool of 23 MSPs to choose from. Richard Leonard, a former GMB official allied to the Corbyn grouping in Scotland, has yet to declare.
A close ally said her decision had been a personal one. “She hasn’t spoken to me or anyone as I understand it. My guess is the constant attacks and backbiting by the left who wish to ‘unite’ the party was the last straw. However, her resignation letter is probably the way she feels,” he said.
He said attacks within the party from critics such as Findlay, Corbyn’s leadership campaign manager in Scotland and a senior figure in the leftwing Campaign for Socialism, the Scottish party’s equivalent of Momentum, will have added to her fatigue and frustration.
Corbyn underlined the importance of Scotland to the leadership in Westminster when he spent five days last week touring the country, including seats Labour hopes it could take from the Scottish National party.
Party figures close to Corbyn said there had been no pressure on Dugdale to leave. Claims there was a confrontation between them last week were dismissed as “absolute nonsense” by one source, who said their dealings were cordial and respectful.
Dugdale fought hard to establish a more federal structure in Labour, securing a seat for the leader of the Scottish party on the ruling national executive committee, which makes crucial decisions about how the party is run.
Rowley will stand in for her for the time being – including on the finely balanced NEC – and is regarded by other members as more likely to support Corbyn. “Jeremy will have things all his own way,” said one.
Unite, Labour’s biggest donor, urged the Scottish party on Wednesday not to rush into a contest. Praising Dugdale for increasing the party’s number of seats at Westminster from one MP when she took over two years ago to seven today, the union’s Scottish secretary, Pat Rafferty, said: “We urge the party to reflect upon this turn of fortunes and consolidate, not to act in undue haste on any succession plan.”
He added: “There is no need to rush into a leadership election. Under Alex Rowley’s leadership we are confident that the voices of Scotland’s working people will be heard loud and clear at Holyrood.”
A spokesman for Corbyn said the timing of any contest would be up to the Scottish executive committee to decide. “The SEC will meet on Saturday 9 September to consider the timetable and process for selecting their next leader,” he said.
A final list of candidates is likely to emerge in the coming days. Unlike the rules for UK Labour, there is no requirement for them to show that they can command the support of a proportion of MPs or MSPs – their names are simply put forward to a ballot of the whole membership.
Although seen as a centrist who will put off leftwing pro-independence voters, Sarwar has become one of Holyrood’s most effective performers and organised a full-to-capacity rally for Corbyn at Glasgow central mosque last week. Muslim voters in the city are a key demographic for both Labour and the SNP.
So far, all of the most likely candidates are men but senior Labour women have pointed out that Dugdale was the only woman among Labour’s key leadership figures – Corbyn, his deputy Tom Watson, and the Welshfirst minister, Carwyn Jones.
The Birmingham Yardley MP, Jess Phillips, said: “The Labour party has a thorny issue to face, as if Kez was replaced by a man all of our leadership positions go to men. People will shout meritocracy as if women aren’t good enough and the best person for the job is always a man, but what’s not good enough is if Labour women are always sidelined.”
This article was written by Heather Stewart and Severin Carrell, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 30th August 2017 18.07 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010