Scottish Labour under Richard Leonard is facing third place at the Holyrood elections again – Gina Davidson

Richard Leonard appears to think yelling crackly slogans through a loudhailer is the most effective way to get the vote out, while his political adversaries are putting on full-scale Busby Berkeley musicals, writes Gina Davidson.

Friday, 2nd October 2020, 7:00 am
Richard Leonard needs to realise he can't rely on policies alone if he is to win over voters to Labour, says Gina Davidson (Picture: John Devlin)
Richard Leonard needs to realise he can't rely on policies alone if he is to win over voters to Labour, says Gina Davidson (Picture: John Devlin)

The irony of the recent failed coup against Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, at the root of which was that he was not “cutting through” with the general public, is that he’s never been so... public.

The man who was effectively unknown to the majority Scottish voters after three years as leader and whose personal approval rating was minus 27 – according to opinion polls – has suddenly emerged from the gloom of Holyrood’s third-party opposition benches and become visible, with a series of interviews. There was even one conducted in his own back garden which must have been a hard pill to swallow for a man who instinctively hates to reveal anything personal.

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Without a doubt, his decision to fight the move by some of his MSPs to have him resign and a new leader elected ahead of next year’s Holyrood elections will have made him slightly better known, and rather more interesting, to the public. He’s now the man who defeated an internal challenge, who was strong enough to stand his ground – it gives him “character” of the kind which was all too lacking before in the public’s eyes.

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But rather than capitalise on that, and despite the fact that he’s hired John McDonnell’s former press man to boost his profile, it seems that Mr Leonard still hasn’t grasped the full extent of the challenge he faces.

In a new interview with the Spectator, he says that not only does he reject being involved in any “cult of personality campaign”, he refuses to be in any “battle of personalities with Ruth Davidson and Nicola Sturgeon”. It’s an interesting line from a man who was close to the Corbyn project – and was there ever a bigger cult of personality in UK politics than that around the previous Labour leader?

There’s a very obvious problem for Mr Leonard on this front: he is involved in a personality battle whether he’s a willing participant or not.

For one, the only reason some Scottish voters can now put a face to the name is because he has shown a little of his own personality with his “come ahead if you think you’re hard enough” approach to Labour rebels. For another, in a Scotland where the constitution rules all political debate, personality is the only thing that can mark you out as different from your competitors and get you a hearing on anything else you might have to sell. But no, Mr Leonard will not lower himself to wonder if it’s a matter of personality rather than policy that sees Nicola Sturgeon riding high in the popularity polls – despite the thousands of Covid deaths in Scotland, and fiascos around school exam results and the return of students to university campuses and the mass outbreak of coronavirus in Glasgow. Instead he will focus on his integrity, principles and values, and not engage at that level.

He should also accept Labour’s third place in Scottish politics as well, as the current interest in him as a result of the leadership challenge will soon wane, and you cannot sell anything to anyone if they not only can’t hear you, they don’t even know you’re there in the first place.

Despite his 15 minutes of fame, Mr Leonard appears to be a man who thinks yelling crackly slogans through a loudhailer strapped to a car roof is still the most effective way to get the vote out, while his political adversaries are putting on full-scale Busby Berkeley musicals, complete with as many flags as possible of course.

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