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Thu Jan 14, 2021, 03:18 PM

Richard Leonard's resignation alone won't end Scottish Labour's woes

Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP long ago supplanted Labour as the party of choice for most Scottish socialists.


In the end, Richard Leonard has bowed to the crushing inevitability of political logic. His resignation as leader of Scottish Labour comes after three disastrous years at the helm – yet the biggest disaster of all was months away. The party goes into May’s Holyrood election in terrible shape. And it is an election that matters more than most, as a majority for the SNP would give it a mandate for a second independence referendum. Labour, which had once been the Union’s bulwark in Scotland, now barely registers. Its repeated, confused shifting of position on whether to support a referendum has allowed the Tories to become the nation’s main Unionist force, and also to push Labour into third place at the Scottish parliament, while the SNP has stolen its clothes on the centre left.

Leonard himself was entirely the wrong man for the job – an old socialist, he surfed the Corbynite wave to power, but lacked the politics and the personality to grab voters’ attention. Neither was there any Momentum-style structure north of the border to support his brand of politics, to develop policy, or to suggest he was anything other than the figurehead of a small and tightly-knit gang of unreconstructed leftists. Scotland is not the left-wing country the idealists like to claim. Leonard’s political offer, based on a romanticised vision of the working class and a fiery statist commitment to workers’ rights, was old-fashioned and said nothing to Middle Scotland about its priorities. His strange, bobbing appearances at First Minister’s Questions were always a bit sub-Scargill. He shouted too much – “someone tell Richard there’s a microphone”, was one opponent’s response.

Last year the centre left attempted to remove him from power, after a dismal run of election results. Scottish Labour lost both its MEPs in the 2019 EU elections, and all but one of its MPs in the same year’s general election. Leonard survived, but only just – there was no great enthusiasm for him even among those who remained loyal. The election of Jackie Baillie as deputy leader last year indicated his time was drawing to a close. Bailie, an experienced and well-liked former minister and shadow cabinet member, was an open critic of Leonard’s. The party had decided it was time to move on. The election of Keir Starmer as UK Labour leader only emphasised the point.


His successor is likely to come from the moderate wing of the party – someone more in sympathy with Starmer’s approach. Baillie is an obvious contender, as is Monica Lennon, who mounted a successful cross-party campaign to end period poverty. Anas Sarwar, the party’s spokesman on Brexit and the constitution, is also expected to throw his hat into the ring. But as the saying has it, you wouldn’t start from here. The next leader will have only a few months to connect with voters and design a manifesto that has broad appeal. Meanwhile, the Scottish party structure is hollowed out and many of Labour’s MSPs have been at Holyrood for too long. Scottish Labour can still expect a hefty beating in May’s election, but at least now the work of renewal can begin. The question is whether it’s all too late.


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Reply Richard Leonard's resignation alone won't end Scottish Labour's woes (Original post)
Celerity Jan 2021 OP
Denzil_DC Jan 2021 #1

Response to Celerity (Original post)

Thu Jan 14, 2021, 05:59 PM

1. A few points.

The first is that the SNP didn't "steal" the Labour Party in Scotland's "clothes on the centre left". Labour lost its long-time voters (including me) to the SNP because Labour no longer had any use for those clothes beyond lip service and electoral expediency. It arrogantly took its voters for granted (hence terms like "steal" creep into these discussions, as if we voters were mere chattels) and told us we had to suck up whatever the central Labour Party leadership felt necessary to gain power, no matter what policies we ourselves favoured. That loyalty grew more and more strained over the years, and finally cracked catastrophically during and after the independence referendum, when Labour allied with the right wing, shared platforms with Tories and worse, and made numerous promises it did not honour.

The second is that Labour's problems will not be solved by simply installing a different leader. The Labour Party in Scotland is a mere branch of the UK Labour Party. This has hampered any efforts to develop policy platforms tailored to Scotland's needs. This tension has seen off a string of recent past leaders of the Labour Party in Scotland, most notably Johann Lamont, who was explicit that she was resigning "because Labour's Westminster leadership had undermined her attempts to reform the party in Scotland, and treated Scottish Labour 'like a branch office of London'".

Much as Labour in the UK is currently struggling to find a coherent post-Corbyn/post-Brexit identity, its problems are compounded in Scotland by tone-deaf leadership. Corbyn's brief visits to Scotland were marked by plain lies about the conduct and legal abilities of the Scottish Government. Leonard, like him, gained a reputation for calling for the Scottish Government to adopt policies it was already enacting, which regularly earned Leonard a roasting during First Minister's Questions at Holyrood. Starmer has proven equally tone-deaf. Dismissing any prospect of ameliorating, let alone overturning, the Brexit decision is not a popular position in Scotland, and nor is denying Scottish people the right to have a further referendum on the future of their country.

Labour in Scotland is diminished and divided. It's hard to see any potential leader who can unite it, let alone widen its appeal to voters. Jackie Baillie has a degree of seniority, but is far from "well-liked", either within or outside the party (she's MSP for my area, and I know her of old). She's machinatory, more right than centre despite her trade union background, but has previously shied away from the ultimate leadership role herself, preferring to serve as an eminence grise behind various leaders. I'm not sure she'd see now as the time to take up the poison chalice of leadership, given recent polling and the fact that she'll be hard-pressed to hang on to her own seat in the next election.

Monia Lennon may be a contender, but she bears a few similarities to previous leader Kezia Dugdale, and I doubt she'd prove a more unifying force, despite the fact that her track record on individual issues deserves some applause and she's shown willingness and abilities to work cross-party.

Sarwar may well run, but he was defeated by Leonard last time round in what was a surprisingly acrimonious and divisive contest, and is widely see as a shallow careerist.

Labour tried putting its idea of a "strong man" into leadership, someone who'd be "the Hammer of the SNP", with the ultra-macho Jim Murphy, whose ridiculous bluster and "man of the people" posing saw Labour all but wiped out in Scotland. It's tried less abrasive leaders with the likes of Wendy Alexander, Cathy Jamieson and Dugdale. None have been able to unite the party, let alone present a coherent and principled opposition to the SNP government.

Its problems lie far beyond whoever the latest victim is who holds the leadership. It shows no sign of even recognizing them, let alone being able to address them. And, as ever, its continual infighting is a major turnoff for voters. That's unlikely to improve in the next few months.

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