Can Richard Leonard’s socialism finally pull Scottish Labour out of its crisis?

Taking the party further to the left is an electoral risk – and could perpetuate its ongoing ideological saga.


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The election of Richard Leonard means the Scottish Labour Party is on its fourth leader since August. This includes Kezia Dugdale (more of whom later), Alex Rowley, who became acting leader but was forced to stand aside last week following allegations of harassment of an ex-partner, and Jackie Baillie, who took over for a day between the exit of Rowley and the arrival of Leonard.

Since the turn of the decade, acting leaders included, there have been nine occupiers of the top post. And yes, this means exactly what it appears to mean.

Scottish Labour is a party that has lost an empire and is yet to find a role. Its traditional place on the soft left (the Scottish party has always been largely moderate, despite a few inflammatory individuals) has been nabbed quite deliberately by the SNP.

In ten years of government, the Nats have pursued various social democratic measures, such as the abolition of prescription charges, the end of right-to-buy, the maintenance of free tuition, ambitious climate change targets, giving 16 and 17-year-olds the right to vote in devolved elections, and, recently, the introduction of baby boxes for new parents.

They support continued EU membership, oppose Trident, are committed to ending the public sector pay cap, are creating a public rail body to bid for franchises against the private sector, and will soon introduce minimum alcohol pricing. Further, the SNP will raise income taxes in December’s Scottish Budget. Labour bullishly insists the Nats are centrist or even centre-right, but any neutral observer can see the facts contradict this.

It’s perhaps no surprise that Scottish Labour has now swung to the hard-left. Leonard, an unprepossessing Yorkshireman and trade union lifer who never misses a chance to be photographed beside a brazier and who has been in Holyrood for just a year, ran on a Corbynite prospectus that comfortably saw off his centre-left challenger Anas Sarwar.

A platoon of Labour MSPs who once declaimed their moderation went scuttling to the Leonard banner, like rats to a sinking ship. Perhaps Corbyn’s relative success in June’s general election made this inevitable. And perhaps there is simply no other distinctive space that the party can occupy. Still, it’s a huge gamble.

The Scottish political community likes to use radical language, but the electorate has never really shared that habit. With the SNP looking like a sensible soft-left option, and Ruth Davidson’s Tories a sensible centre-right option, it’s hard to see where Leonard can find a national constituency of any real size.

Davidson has significant momentum at her back and will cannily stick to the centre-ground, while Sturgeon, who has benefited from an influx of ex-Labour voters, will shimmy left just enough to make a Labour vote seem pointless. It’s still not at all clear where Scottish Labour stands on the EU or the Union, which is, frankly, not a good look.

Leonard’s victory speech had one memorable line, promising to lead the party as a “movement for real change, a movement for democracy, and yes, as a movement for socialism”. As one senior Labour source told me, “In his head, Richard still lives in a working-class Yorkshire mining village where people live happily ever after.”

Little wonder his campaign was supported by Momentum and its Scottish sister the Campaign for Socialism. It’s informative to dig a little deeper into the result: Leonard was backed by 51.8 per cent of the 17,664 individual members who voted in the contest, compared to 48.2 per cent who supported Sarwar. Among the unions – the affiliated supporters section – Leonard secured 77.3 per cent of the 4,242 votes cast, while Sarwar got 22.7 per cent. Sarwar edged the “registered supporters” section with 51.9 per cent, while Leonard got 48.1 per cent.

Will this result finally bring some euphony to the discordant party? That’s not at all clear. Scottish Labour’s crisis has dragged on so long that its arguments now lack any real traction in the national debate. If Leonard is to change this he will have to deliver big gains in by-elections and mastermind a major uplift in the opinion polls before the 2021 devolved election. There is a danger that fractiousness has become a way of life in the party.

This was clear from the response to the announcement on Friday night that Dugdale would be leaving Holyrood for a fortnight to take part in I’m a Celebrity. The mischievous timing rather overshadowed the next day’s leadership result but also brought out a round of predictably catty and unimaginative responses.

Leonard indicated that his predecessor might be suspended, and there are rumours she might resign her seat altogether or even join the SNP, for whom her partner, Jenny Gilruth, is an MSP. Heading to Australia with Ant and Dec is certainly an unexpected choice by Dugdale, but it has unnecessarily been turned into a crisis of Leonard’s first days.

Arguably, a better way to handle the news would have been to make a joke about it: after all, Dugdale is well-adjusted and likeable, and this could have been a rare opportunity to show political humanity on national TV, and in doing so gather some soft power.

Let’s see what happens next – modern politics is full of surprises – but I’m not convinced the Scottish electorate has been shouting “left a bit! And a bit more!”. Labour has made its choice, and must live with it. Until the next time.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).