The National:

ONCE upon a time Scottish Labour was the unchallenged dominant party of this land. They were even viewed as a banker in Labour’s column in UK elections, contributing a certain 40-50 MPs towards any prospective UK-wide Labour Government.

No more is this true. Scottish Labour have now won a single solitary seat at two of the past three UK elections. They are trailing in the polls with a mere 14% support, with the expectation of this going lower. And they are now engaged in bitter infighting - with a growing number of party voices stating their opposition to the hapless leadership of Richard Leonard with more and more calling for him to go, including a host of grandees such as Helen Liddell and George Robertson.

READ MORE: More Labour peers call on Richard Leonard to step down as Scottish leader

Scottish Labour have had nine leaders in twenty years. They have fallen a long way from Donald Dewar, Labour’s first First Minister, who won power in the 1999 Scottish elections and tragically died twenty years ago next month. Dewar was a diffident leader but is the nearest the Scottish party has ever come under devolution to having someone lead them who made an impact, had resonance with the public, and a way of communicating with voters beyond the party tribe.

It seems hard to believe now but Labour twenty years ago started the devolution era with some built-in advantages. It had a record of winning elections and the knowledge, capacity and hunger to continuing doing so. The first Scottish Parliament saw, underneath Dewar and his tutelage, a raft of emerging younger political talent who looked as if they offered the chance of a bright future. And adding to this its principal opponents, the SNP, had at this point never won a national election and didn’t seem to have the desire to do so.

But critically Labour also made the fundamental mistake of over-estimating its own strength – aided by the First Past the Post electoral system, which in 1997 awarded the party (on 45.6% of the vote) 78% of the Westminster seats. This Labour over-confidence continued into the Scottish Parliament despite its broadly proportional system, and also saw the party make its second disastrous mistake: underestimating the SNP and caricaturing the Nationalists as a force which was too divided to ever win and maintain power.

READ MORE: Richard Leonard rules out leadership contest for Scottish Labour

Richard Leonard is a decent man. He is principled; has a record of good, progressive trade unionism and is widely liked by many of his colleagues. But he is no leader. And even more damagingly, he and senior people in the party have, after thirteen years of opposition, no idea on how to do opposition.

This manifests itself in two ways: first, there is no strategy or direction to take on the SNP and make a distinctive Labour voice matter in Scotland; second, this is reinforced by the day-to-day actions of politics, whereby in Holyrood, public life and media, the party has literally no notion on how best to be an effective opposition. Instead, it just sits and carps at the "divisive" Nationalists and their "obsession" with independence. The party has, thirteen years into office, parked itself into a cul-de-sac where it has become close to irrelevant.

The party is unsure then in both how it does everyday politics and the wider and longer-term questions. It is unclear what it stands for and which Scotland it stands for.

Today a Welsh opinion poll showed support for Welsh independence rising and Welsh Labour voters for the first time showing a majority for independence: 51%. This is the direction of travel of what is left of the Labour vote in Scotland  – with it close to inevitable that at some point in the near-future a majority of Scottish Labour voters will be pro-independence.

READ MORE: Majority of Welsh Labour voters want Wales to be independent, new poll suggests

The challenge for the party is not who replaces Richard Leonard, for the issue here is whether he goes now or after the 2021 elections. It is rather whether the party can find an agreed voice and vision which speaks to centre-left, social democratic Scotland. And for that to happen the party cannot remain stuck in its present intransigent pro-Union position which wants to deny Scotland the right to decide its own fate. At the absolute minimum Labour has to be for the right of Scottish self-determination – a position in keeping with traditional Labour values going back to Keir Hardie and James Maxton.

Scottish Labour became the political establishment of this country through its long years of dominance and in so doing it became insular, arrogant and complacent. Understandably voters turned against it and punished it.

Its long decline has left a gap in our politics to the centre-left of the SNP which the Greens are unable to fill: speaking to centre-left voters on public services, poverty, inequality, class and power. That is the terrain that a future Labour leadership after Richard Leonard has to embrace.

But to do so Labour has to realise that they don’t own the allegiance of any voters or political terrain, and that they need a humbleness, as well as an honesty about past failings, if they are ever to have any relevance again.

Dr Gerry Hassan is a writer and academic who has authored and edited more than two dozen books on Scottish and UK politics, including ‘The Strange Death of Labour Scotland’. He can be followed at @gerryhassan and contacted via