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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.

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). 

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Labour’s renationalisation plans look nothing like the 1970s

The Corbynistas are examining models such as Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and John Lewis. 

A community energy company in Nottingham, a credit union in Oldham and, yes, Britain's most popular purveyor of wine coolers. No, this is not another diatribe about about consumer rip-offs. Quite the opposite – this esoteric range of innovative companies represent just a few of those which have come to the attention of the Labour leadership as they plot how to turn the abstract of one of their most popular ideas into a living, neo-liberal-shattering reality.

I am talking about nationalisation – or, more broadly, public ownership, which was the subject of a special conference this month staged by a Labour Party which has pledged to take back control of energy, water, rail and mail.

The form of nationalisation being talked about today at the top of the Labour Party looks very different to the model of state-owned and state-run services that existed in the 1970s, and the accompanying memories of delayed trains, leaves on the line and British rail fruitcake that was as hard as stone.

In John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn’s conference on "alternative models of ownership", the three firms mentioned were Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and, of course, John Lewis. Each represents a different model of public ownership – as, of course, does the straightforward takeover of the East Coast rail line by the Labour government when National Express handed back the franchise in 2009.

Robin Hood is the first not-for-profit energy company set up a by a local authority in 70 years. It was created by Nottingham city council and counts Corbyn himself among its customers. It embodies the "municipal socialism" which innovative local politicians are delivering in an age of austerity and its tariffs delivers annual bills of £1,000 or slightly less for a typical household.

Credit unions share many of the values of community companies, even though they operate in a different manner, and are owned entirely by their customers, who are all members. The credit union model has been championed by Labour MPs for decades. 

Since the financial crisis, credit unions have worked with local authorities, and their supporters see them as ethical alternatives to the scourge of payday loans. The Oldham credit union, highlighted by McDonnell in a speech to councillors in 2016, offers loans from £50 upwards, no set-up costs and typically charges interest of around £75 on a £250 loan repaid over 18 months.

Credit unions have been transformed from what was once seen as a "poor man's bank" to serious and tech-savvy lenders where profits are still returned to customers as dividends.

Then there is John Lewis. The "never-knowingly undersold" department store is owned by its 84,000 staff, or "partners". The Tories have long cooed over its pledge to be a "successful business powered by its people and principles" while Labour approves of its policy of doling out bonuses to ordinary staff, rather than just those at the top. Last year John Lewis awarded a partnership bonus of £89.4m to its staff, which trade website Employee Benefits judged as worth more than three weeks' pay per person (although still less than previous top-ups).

To those of us on the left, it is a painful irony that when John Lewis finally made an entry into politics himself – in the shape of former managing director Andy Street – it was to seize the Birmingham mayoralty ahead of Labour's Sion Simon last year. (John Lewis the company remains apolitical.)

Another model attracting interest is Transport for London, currently controlled by Labour mayor Sadiq Khan. TfL may be a unique structure, but nevertheless trains feature heavily in the thinking of shadow ministers, whether Corbynista or soft left. They know that rail represents their best chance of quick nationalisation with public support, and have begun to spell out how it could be delivered.

Yes, the rhetoric is blunt, promising to take back control of our lines, but the plan is far more gradual. Rather than risk the cost and litigation of passing a law to cancel existing franchises, Labour would ask the Department for Transport to simply bring routes back in-house as each of the private sector deals expires over the next decade.

If Corbyn were to be a single-term prime minister, then a public-owned rail system would be one of the legacies he craves.

His scathing verdict on the health of privatised industries is well known but this month he put the case for the opposite when he addressed the Conference on Alternative Models of Ownership. Profits extracted from public services have been used to "line the pockets of shareholders" he declared. Services are better run when they are controlled by customers and workers, he added. "It is those people not share price speculators who are the real experts."

It is telling, however, that Labour's radical election manifesto did not mention nationalisation once. The phrase "public ownership" is used 10 times though. Perhaps it is a sign that while the leadership may have dumped New Labour "spin", it is not averse to softening its rhetoric when necessary.

So don't look to the past when considering what nationalisation and taking back control of public services might mean if Corbyn made it to Downing Street. The economic models of the 1970s are no more likely to make a comeback then the culinary trends for Blue Nun and creme brûlée.

Instead, if you want to know what public ownership might look like, then cast your gaze to Nottingham, Oldham and dozens more community companies around our country.

Peter Edwards was press secretary to a shadow chancellor, editor of LabourList and a parliamentary candidate in 2015 and 2017.