This is a blog of two halves. The first half I wrote before I attended a Scottish Labour leadership hustings, and the second half I wrote after.
I have letters, emails, leaflets and a pledge card strewn in front of me as I type, and the faces of the three hopefuls for the Scottish Labour leadership smile and reach out to me in carefully selected photographs. And I'm torn, not just between each option, but between bothering and not bothering.
In truth I will vote - I consider it a responsibility of membership - but the curious supporting nominations process that goes along with a Labour leadership election leaves me unsure of my vote's worth. The blocs are already aligned but, more worryingly, the blocs were aligned even before any of the candidates stood up and said what they planned to do. These allegiances are more feudal than democratic, and all they let me know is which way the wind is blowing; which is to say they do not help me at all.
Johann Lamont looks to have sewn up the lion's share of affiliate and constituency nominations, and has a decent showing of councillors so far. She's also clearly the front-runner, because she is saying absolutely nothing to me about policy in her written materials. The pledge card (for it is hers) couldn't identify her more strongly as the continuity candidate if it had Iain Gray's photo on it instead of hers. It screams loudly in the voice of John Smith House, with six pledges which literally give nothing away. I don't know Johann, and I think I've heard her speak maybe twice, but she has the highest mountain to climb in the hustings if she's going to win my vote.
Ken Macintosh has an impressive set of nominations himself. More councillors than anyone else, but also a decent showing in constituencies and affiliates. His materials are more open than Johann's, presumably because he is coming from behind in this front-runners' race. His media savvy shines through in the shaping of his messages and, heavens be praised, he's actually setting out some differential policy positions on public transport and the economy, straying into reserved territory a little but as others have proven, that's okay. His website and social media presence looks like he's hired some people who are very good at those things, which is a deliberately backhanded compliment.
Tom Harris was always going to struggle for nominations, and so it has proved. MSPs don't want a King Over the Water, and CLPs and affiliates won't back an outsider. Tom clearly has less money to spend, and I have no leaflet, no pledge card with his smiling visog on it. But I do have an email which is bold, antagonistic and insightful, and if not littered with policy suggestions, is certainly clearer than either of the others on the direction he wants to take the party. Tom's pragmatic New Labour credentials, for which he is so often criticised, shine through in the message that what we need is to win, becuse unless we win we can't do anything else. It's a deeply imperfect but compelling argument. Tom also gets social media in a way that neither of the others do, which is why he is far less cautious online than the others. He also has little to lose. No-one expects him to win.
So as I await the opportunity to hear the three in person, which I'm really hoping will help me make a choice, I am genuinely torn. I want to see the sort of radical policy shifts that I don't think Johann can deliver; I want us to be led by a strong, confident, robust debater that I'm not sure Ken can be; and I want a united Labour party that I don't think Tom can create.
We shall see.
One quick aside: in the excitement of the Scottish Labour review and its talk of all-member constituency meetings and a new openness in party decision-making, I was disappointed if not surprised to find that my CLP was one of the first to lodge a supporting nomination, without having consulted me or, presumably, any of its wider membership. Although I understand that the delegates system is democratic, we need to starting walking this "new openness" walk, and all-member CLP meetings are a key requirement in my view.
So now I'm writing after having attended the Edinburgh hustings. It was surprisingly good; I had expected rather more rigidity and distance than there was, and I hadn't expected such interesting and thought-provoking questions to be asked.
I should do another aside, unfair though it is to put it in that way, and say that the warm-up act - the deputy leadership hustings - was deeply encouraging too. Ian Davidson was strong and impressive, and Lewis Macdonald said some terrifically well-considered things about how to move forward. He was the dark horse for me, and would make a cracking deputy. But Anas Sarwar really does have the whole package, and persuaded me that he would really do a power of reforming good in the deputy role. Anas has my vote for the deputy leadership, though I suspect he doesn't need it.
As for the main event, well it perhaps cemented some of my earlier views. The messages were markedly different. Johann and Ken couldn't help but reel off their main supporting nominations, but Tom's lack of them quite evidently freed him from the politics of patronage, and surprisingly it worked in his favour. He made the same virtue of being outside the Holyrood group - a position which everyone presumes to be a disadvantage - and though he didn't explicitly go as far as pointing out the culpability of the current MSPs in the disaster of the May election, he pointed the way.
I asked a question which was perhaps a little blunt, about the bizarre drawing up of a pledge card for the last election which contained unexplained u-turns and poorly thought-through policy, and what assurances I could get that that would never happen again.
Johann honestly explained how the leadership team had come to its decisions on the key pledges while defending the good parts of the last manifesto; she took responsibility for the mistakes, and she asserted how she had learned lessons from it. Ken said he was surprised at Johann's defence of the last manifesto which led to such a convincing loss and described a vision of a more fully devolved party dealing with manifesto creation in a more localised way. Tom weighed in with both barrels telling me if I thought we lost because of the pledge card or the manifesto I was wrong - we had lost the election years before either were printed.
In truth these are all good answers,and I was encouraged that our policy development will change whatever the result in December, but Tom alone had fire in his belly and conviction on his sleeve.
Other questions touched - inevitably - on independence and the referendum, and here again were clear differences. While Ken reinforced his devolutionist position, and Tom came into his own in his blunt unionism, Johann tried to steer a middle course, and didn't quite manage it. And despite it being clear that in the room and in the party it was Johann and Ken's messages that were gaining most support, Tom's admonishment that we need a leader to appeal to those outside the party not within it rang louder and louder in my mind.
I'm not alone in Scottish Labour when I say that quite a lot of the things Tom Harris believes, I disagree with. I am not of his "wing" of the party and judging by the room and the nominations many others aren't either. But the leader is not the policy-making arm of the party and Tom has been clear that his approach to policy construction will be consensual. On that key basis, I think he has traction.
Crucially for me, where I find I do agree with him more emphatically by the day is in his solid, pragmatic, independent-minded view of what we need to do as a party to win the next election. And winning the next election, when all is said and done, is what we need our leader to do.
Earlier this year, when I first started writing things that Tom categorically disagreed with for his LabourHame website, he asked me in an email whether I was on Twitter, and I had to admit that while I was, he probably wouldn't be able to see me because after several particularly feisty exchanges in 2010 I was fairly sure he had blocked me. So it is with some surprise and a feeling of optimism based in fundamental change that I set out my support for his leadership bid now.
In the end, I am focused on three Ps: policy,
principle and pragmatism. On policy alone, Ken is the man for me. His positions and his presentational skills would make him a terrific
manager for team Scottish Labour. On the basis of principle alone, Johann has
the strength, the history and the fight to be the sort of leader I could
slog my guts out for. But for the pragmatism to know that neither
policy nor principle are worth anything if we are not engaged with and
electable by the Scottish people, and for his capacity to embody both the policy positions and the principles we need to succeed, Tom pips them both for me.
While I know that all three candidates would make good Scottish Labour leaders, I shall be voting for Tom Harris.