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11 March 2018updated 06 Aug 2021 3:14pm

Richard Leonard’s conference speech made Jeremy Corbyn look positively bourgeois

The most unabashedly left-wing I’ve heard from a mainstream party leader.

By Chris Deerin

It says a lot about the current state of politics that Richard Leonard felt he could make the speech he did this weekend. And it says a lot about Richard Leonard. His address to Scottish Labour’s conference in Dundee was perhaps the most unabashedly left-wing I’ve heard from a mainstream party leader. Rereading it only reveals it as all the more extraordinary.

It contained no attempt whatsoever to court Middle Scotland. There were no warm words for business or acknowledgement of the reasonably significant role the private sector plays in driving the economy. Where capitalists were mentioned, it was to duff them up. This was a speech for those clustered round the brazier – the comrades, the brothers, the flinty soshulists, the union lugs, the Movement. It was so intensely and deliberately and self-knowingly radical that Jeremy Corbyn suddenly looks suspiciously bourgeois. Gordon Brown might as well be Milton Friedman. Leonard’s Labour Party can’t spell Keir Hardie’s name, but it has set course for political prehistory anyway.

In its way, it’s all quite impressive. Leonard has decided the tenor of the times demands earnestness, and only earnestness. He sees wide public disaffection with the existing economic settlement as carrying within it the seeds of a socialist revolution. He’s counting on the romantic myth of Scotland being true: that we are an uncommonly selfless nation, that our political choices are driven by throbbing consciences and horny-handed fellow-feeling, that we will give and give again. It is a bold analysis, and one hell of a leap.

For the faithful, those reinvigorated by the hard-left takeover of the national party and now its tartan counterpart, the speech must have been so much sweet music. It was a paean to the possibilities, the glories, the all-round awesomeness of the Really Big State. All ills would be cured by a Labour government spending here, capping there, intervening everywhere. The only things standing in the way of a brighter world are a lack of will on the part of the SNP and the mendacity of the Tories. It really is that simple.

Leonard set the tone from the off. He paid tribute to Dundee’s Timex workers and their “heroic struggle and bitter defeat” a quarter of a century ago. His first act as leader when he took over three months ago, he reminded the audience, had been “to join the workers at the gates of BiFab in Methil”. In his first week he had “stood shoulder to shoulder with firefighters” lobbying against cuts. He had “campaigned on the high streets of town centres with Unite to oppose Royal Bank of Scotland closures”, and “joined the UCU picket lines to back university workers”. I’m not saying these aren’t commendable causes, but the image builds of a politician happiest with a placard in his hand and a chant on his lips.

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Scotland, Leonard said, has a “low wage and a low output economy, built on the quicksand of precarious work, zero hour contracts, agency working, and umbrella companies”. He criticised the “massive growth in overseas ownership of our industry”. He would cap the profits of private agencies working within the NHS. Scotland’s train services would be “de-privatised” into public ownership. Not only would no new Private Finance Initiative deals be signed, but he would look to “bring back in-house existing contracts”. Outsourced contracts in the care-home sector would be returned to local authorities, as would care-home staff. Labour would “stop once and for all giving millions of pounds of public money in subsidies to exploitative tax-avoiding companies like Amazon down the road in Dunfermline”, and “stop awarding billions of pounds of public procurement contracts to companies which don’t pay a living wage, which use zero hour contracts, and which blacklist workers.” Trade unions have “a major task not just in defending their members but playing a part in planning the economy.”

It’s undoubtedly the case that the events of recent years have reopened political arguments that many thought were done and dusted. There is, clearly, a public mood that inequalities have been allowed to grow too great and that some kind of rebalancing is in order. This argument is taken as seriously by many on the right as it is by those on the left. But for most it is a matter of balance as well as fairness.

The question is whether enough voters will judge Leonard’s analysis and approach to be the right ones. His description of modern Scotland is of an unrecognisably dark and doomy place. His is a politics focused solely on society’s losers and victims – again, admirable in its way, bold in its outlook, but also, I suspect, hopelessly naïve and doomed to fail. What’s in it for the rest? In that sense, Leonard’s ideological self-indulgence will only end up betraying those he professes to care about most.

“I tell you that the rich are only so rich because the poor are so poor,” he boomed. “This really is no time to tinker around the edges. Our party’s mission under my leadership is not simply to secure a fairer distribution of wealth from the existing economic system, it is to fundamentally change the existing economic system.”

Well, one person’s socialist visionary is another’s unhinged fantasist. Scotland – all of it, top to bottom – will have to decide which box Richard Leonard ticks.

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