There may be hope for Scottish Labour with new leader Richard Leonard at its helm

With Leonard’s authentic union background he can reframe the argument, pointing to SNP cuts saying that the unit of resistance to austerity and Toryism ought not to be nations, but class and solidarity

John McKee
Saturday 18 November 2017 16:06
Richard Leonard announced as the new leader of the Scottish Labour Party

Scottish Labour has just elected Richard Leonard to be its sixth leader in ten years. The poet William Blake wrote that “the strongest poison ever known came from Caesar’s laurel crown” and so it has been the case, with politician after politician falling to the curse of the leader’s crown.

The latest victim, Kezia Dugdale, resigned unexpectedly in September, setting off the contest between Leonard and his moderate challenger Anas Sarwar.

Once the impregnable bastion of Labour politics and home of the party founder Keir Hardie, Scotland counted among its politicians towering figures such as Donald Dewar, John Smith, Robin Cook and Gordon Brown. Now Dugdale throws in the towel, and announces she’s moving onto reality TV, launching a publicity grenade the night before the announcement of the new leader.

This is all apart from the resignation and suspension of its deputy leader Alex Rowley over claims of harassment by a former lover, which he strongly denies. The contest itself had been bitterly fought, with claim and counter-claim of malpractice, being dubbed “the survival of the riggest” as each candidate sought to sign up supporters and affiliates.

And yet, despite the chaos, the electoral decimation and the poverty of leadership, there is some hope yet for the Scottish Labour Party in its newly elected leader Richard Leonard.

I followed his campaign closely throughout the election and there is something of the spirit of Corbyn’s resurgence about this candidate. A mild-mannered man, he’s shied away from the comparison claiming he is “too long in the tooth to be a Corbynite”, yet in a campaign with mud flying everywhere his message has remained hopeful and focused on policy, adhering to the old Bennite adage that politics is fundamentally not about the psychodrama of personalities, but the issues.

Whilst Sarwar fought hard, commanding the support of heavyweight establishment figures from Jackie Ballie to Alan Johnson, Leonard’s campaign was fired by a mix of trade union power (he is a former GMB boss) and crucially, the young. As one campaign staffer put it “a coalition of the left and the left behind”.

One MP tipped as a rising star who backed Leonard early on was Paul Sweeney, who said: “The key difference is Richard Leonard’s campaign is driven by policy and vision for future of Scotland about a fundamental shift in balance of wealth and power. He’s captured energy and spirit of the general election which had unexpected resurgence, hope and opportunity.”

Talk of a “Corbyn surge” can be exaggerated given Scottish Labour failed to win substantially more votes in the 2017 general election, however there is no doubt that the terms of the debate are being affected by his appeal to many voters who were once SNP, for instance the youth vote is now the one demographic where Labour has a substantial lead. It now has seven MPs, defying expectations in the 2017 election and is once again leading Ruth Davidson’s Scottish Tories in the polls, providing a challenge to the still dominant SNP.

The space for a radical alternative to independence which capitalised on the anti-establishment feeling sweeping the world in 2014 has been sensed by Sturgeon, probably the most formidable and agile politician in the UK. The SNP conference was dominated by a string of notionally left-wing policy pledges and a clear positioning to prevent it from being flanked on the left.

The SNP thrives off a sense of Scottish moral exceptionalism, capitalising on resentment towards rapacious Tory England. Yet, Leonard’s authentic union background and hopeful rhetoric reframes the argument, pointing to SNP cuts he is able to say that the unit of resistance to austerity and Toryism ought not to be nations, but class and solidarity.

The SNP have found it far easier to go after his rival Sarwar on issues such his family firm’s failure to pay the living wage, Sturgeon expertly turning the screws during a First Ministers Questions.

They have found Leonard less easy to grapple with; a less scripted politician, who explicitly rejected the managerialism which defined Labour’s tremendous fall from power, he is a different quality. His policy platform outdoes the nationalist offing in its boldness, most prominently his proposed wealth tax.

As the Scottish Budget approaches, with the issue of new taxation, underfunded councils and the need to increase public sector pay as inflation bites, Leonard’s wealth tax was criticised as being impractical and fanciful to meet the challenges given it’s outwith the current purview of the Scottish Parliament’s powers. But Sweeney says this narrow thinking “demonstrates how shallow the ambition of the Scottish Parliament has been under the SNP. Labour is willing to seize initiative, as they did when they were the founders of devolution.”

The original champion of devolution, long before it was considered practical was Keir Hardie himself, who Leonard claims as his political hero. Leonard gave an impressive speech at Glasgow Science Centre on Saturday morning invoking Hardie’s socialism and saying: “With this new movement for real change, energised with this new generation helping to lead it. But founded on our old and enduring idealism too.”

Scottish Labour has gone through dark days indeed and the new leader takes on a chalice – but perhaps his message of hope is an antidote to the poison.

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