Richard Leonard’s survival is bad news for union supporters - Euan McColm

The plan was to end Richard Leonard’s woeful tenure as leader of the Scottish Labour Party. Instead, he’s more secure in his position than before.

Sunday, 13th September 2020, 7:30 am
Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard survived an attempted vote of no confidence
Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard survived an attempted vote of no confidence

A meeting, yesterday, of Labour’s Scottish Executive Committee was due to vote on a motion of no confidence in Leonard. In the end, no show of hands was required.

The rebel alliance discovered it didn’t have the numbers required to inflict a serious blow. The motion was withdrawn and those, including a number of MSPs, who believe Leonard should go are left wondering how to get rid of a leader whose only saving grace is that he’s so low profile that few members of the public realise how woeful he is.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

What a mess.

Scottish Labour used to be the common sense section of the party. Back in the 1980s when cranks like Ken Livingstone and Derek Hatton drove Labour councils to the fringes and the tabloids narrative was all about “the loony left”, it was Scottish Labour that stood in the centre ground, refusing to capitulate to those who believed that what the voting public really wanted was some kind of wonky reboot of the Russian revolution.

While the far-left militant tendency tried to capture the Labour Party, Scots such as John Smith, Gordon Brown, and Alistair Darling showed that there was another way.

Eventually, the reality-based section of the Labour Party won out and the cranks were sent packing.

But the far left was only wounded and it came roaring back under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. All that work in persuading voters – by nature self-interested and cautious – that Labour could be trusted went up in flames as the sectarians of the fringes moved to take control of the party machine.

Richard Leonard owes his position to the same people who believed – foolishly – that Corbyn was the answer to Labour’s problems.

Leonard was a signed-up member of the Corbyn project, a true believer in a brand of politics that had gone out of fashion around the same time The Specials were at number one in the charts with “Ghost Town”.

Corbyn is gone, now, of course but Leonard clings on. Like a Japanese soldier hiding in the jungle, unaware the war is over, Leonard prepares for a victory that will never come.

When a number of his Holyrood colleagues recently urged Leonard to quit, he was defiant. Not only had he no intention of going anywhere, he wondered aloud whether those calling for his head were the right sort of people to represent the Labour Party at the next Holyrood election.

Now that Leonard’s position is secured, we can expect his supporters in the party to exact revenge on his behalf. Those who called for him to go may have been trying to save their party from oblivion but to Leonard’s acolytes, they are traitors to the cause and they now have very large targets painted on their back. Following the withdrawal of the motion of no confidence, yesterday, Leonard called for unity in the party. It was time to end internal plotting and for Labour to come together to fight next year’s Holyrood election. He said he had listened to concerns expressed about his leadership and would treat them with “respect and humility”.

If you believe that, I’ve got a bridge to sell you. Leonard is surrounded by the same sort of cranks who believed that if only Jeremy Corbyn would move further left, he’d be a shoo-in to become Prime Minister. Their approach to politics is rigidly ideological and a central part of that ideology is that anyone who is not with them is very much against them. Leonard’s critics should watch their backs.

This is all great fun for the SNP and the Scottish Conservatives. The nats have had further confirmation – as if that were needed – that Labour is a long way from being a credible challenger for power at Holyrood while the Tories may content themselves with the knowledge that they remain the main anti-nationalist force in Scotland.

Labour’s woes in Scotland long predate the election of Leonard as leader. A failure to find a coherent line on the constitution has meant voters have been uncertain about the party’s position on the issue that dominates our politics.

But this does not excuse Leonard’s own failings. Since he succeeded Kezia Dugdale as leader three years ago, responsibility for Scottish Labour’s fortunes lies with him.

Polls now place the party that once dominated Scottish politics a lowly third place and Labour MSPs are bracing themselves for further losses at the polls next May.

Leonard’s determination to cling on comes as Labour’s UK leader, Keir Starmer, begins making his party look like a credible force, once more. While Starmer sweeps up the mess caused by the disastrous Corbyn project, Leonard and his cronies believe that just another step to the left will turn their fortunes around.

They are wrong about this. They are wrong about most things.

The situation now is that Leonard remains a weirdly obscure figure for a party leader and that those voters who do recognise him will forever know him as the man his party’s sane wing tried to oust. For all his talk of the need for unity, he leads a party divided.

This is not just bad news for those inclined to vote Labour but for those who continue to believe in the maintenance of the United Kingdom. Without a strong Labour Party arguing the case against Scottish independence, the SNP will remain an appealing home for many left-leaning voters (no, of course the nats aren’t of the left but the spin says they are and that’s all that seems to matter, these days).

Leonard might be clinging to his position but while he does so his party is fractured and his country is increasingly vulnerable to the rise of divisive nationalism.

Many in Labour rejoiced when Jeremy Corbyn stepped down after his second general election defeat but Richard Leonard’s refusal to do likewise shows the far left has more damage yet to do.


Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.