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“I’m not contemplating loss”: Richard Leonard fights back

In an exclusive interview with the New Statesman, the Scottish Labour leader speaks of his “anger” at calls for his resignation, Labour's position on independence, and his strategy for the election that may decide the fate of the UK. 

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Richard Leonard, the leader of the Scottish Labour Party, has had a challenging few months. “Yes, it’s difficult to disagree with that,” he laughs nervously. Since the start of September, the Scottish Labour leader has faced calls to resign from four of his 23 MSPs. Two high-profile members of his shadow cabinet have resigned while delivering blistering criticisms of his message, his ability to cut through, his strategy and his polling performance. Under his leadership, they warned, the party is facing “catastrophe” in the Scottish parliamentary elections next May.

As recently as a few weeks ago, it seemed likely Leonard would have to stand down. Yet he is still in place, bruised but defiant. Taking his seat opposite me at a round boardroom table in the Scottish parliament, fresh from an appearance against Nicola Sturgeon in the chamber, he sits awkwardly in his chair, leaning back, adjusting his red tie, delivering long, earnest answers in a gentle Yorkshire accent.

“I’ve reflected on criticisms that have been made, and I do that with a degree of humility,” he says. “But actually, coming out of that process, I feel a lot stronger. Some of it has spurred me on, some of it just strengthens my resolve, some of it forces me to look around to see if there is anybody who I think could do a better job – and I’ve come to the conclusion there isn’t.”

He thinks the removal of Jackson Carlaw as leader of the Scottish Conservatives, and the “very swift coronation of Douglas Ross as the replacement”, may have been a “trigger point” for MSPs in his own party who had also hoped for a bloodless coup and a new leader ahead of next year’s election. “They could have done [it] if I’d been willing to accept it and the party had been willing to accept it, but I wasn’t, and they weren’t.”

He is visibly angry about the leadership challenge. “The timing of it, as much as anything else, was a huge source of frustration. So when I’m preparing a speech in a debate on a vote of no confidence in [the SNP’s deputy leader] John Swinney, there are people challenging me to say, ‘You should be considering your position’. When we’ve got the government on the ropes, somebody decided that they should have a go inside the group. That was a source of both frustration and” – he pauses – “some anger, I have to say.”

The MSPs who challenged him argued that they, with a fifth unidentified colleague, had hit the threshold of 20 per cent of the parliamentary party required to trigger a leadership contest – the same process by which Owen Smith and Angela Eagle challenged Jeremy Corbyn in 2016. However, the General Secretary of the Labour Party in Scotland responded by saying that there was “no precedent” for this mechanism north of the border. How, then, does Scottish Labour remove its leader?

There is another pause. “Up until now, the practice has been when somebody resigns or loses their seat, then they step down. That’s what’s happened up until now.”

Leonard is keen to discuss the systemic problems he has faced as the first Scottish Labour leader to inherit a party that is “third in the pecking order” for parliamentary time and broadcast appearances. But he says the “challenging criticisms” of recent weeks have also led him to make real changes. “It’s why, for example, we decided to kind of bolster our communications team by bringing in Andy,” he says, gesturing to Andy Whitaker, John McDonnell's former head of communications, who is also sitting, silently, at the boardroom table taking notes, his Dictaphone recording his own copy of the interview. It is commonplace for an adviser to sit in on an interview, but it is rare for a politician to draw attention to them; Whitaker blushes slightly. Leonard says the appointment was intended to deliver “extra support and resource to me in projecting the message that I’ve got, or that we’ve got, as a party”.

This is a tacit admission of the biggest criticism that has been levelled at Leonard’s leadership: that he is a weak communicator. “He doesn’t seem to break through,” George Foulkes, a Scottish Labour peer and former minister, said in July, in one of the first interventions calling on Leonard to consider his position. A YouGov poll in August found that after nearly three years as leader, Leonard remained effectively unknown to 56 per cent of Scottish voters. The same poll put his personal approval rating at minus 27, and minus 14 among his own voters.

Leonard is clearly frustrated by what he sees as the focus on personalities in Holyrood – between Nicola Sturgeon on the one hand and Ruth Davidson, who is standing in as leader of the Scottish Conservatives in the parliament until Douglas Ross wins a seat, on the other. “I’m not doing a cult of personality campaign,” Leonard remarks at one point. He has little time for politicians he sees as having insufficient respect for parliament, who are just a “surfing celebrity on Twitter or whatever”.

“I get that the messenger as well as the message is quite important, but within that I want to retain my integrity and my principles and the values that got me involved in politics in the first place,” he explains. “I do see politics in here as a battle. It’s not a battle of personalities between me, Ruth Davidson and Nicola Sturgeon; it’s a battle of ideas between nationalism, conservatism and democratic socialism.”

Leonard’s message ahead of the elections next May is simple: “We are focusing on the people’s priorities.”

“Jobs, public services, the public health crisis,” he says, “will eclipse some of those long-standing debates that we’ve had around the future constitutional position of Scotland.” But for all Scottish Labour's hopes of focusing the debate on other issues, it is on the constitutional question that Leonard is most compelling and, it seems, most comfortable.

Nicola Sturgeon, he argues, has “appropriated some of the language of socialism and cooperation to make an appeal to the people – but in the end, her political project is to sow division”. As the SNP has supplanted Labour, support for Scottish independence has increasingly become a core element of progressive politics in Scotland. The challenge, as Leonard sees it, is to make “the progressive case” for staying in the Union (“I wouldn’t define it as unionism”), for “remaining and reforming the UK”.

“I’m not in favour of the status quo, socially, economically or constitutionally,” he says, speaking at length about the need to “completely revisit the British constitution”. He supports the idea of a federal UK, and argues that there is “a compelling case to revisit where the balance of power lies in the UK”, and for “parity of esteem” between the devolved parliaments and Westminster. “The Labour Party, from its very inception, has been a party which has supported Scottish Home Rule, and so our tradition is a tradition of decentralisation and devolution. I think that is distinctive from a Conservative unionism on the one hand, and a nationalism on the other.”

He has precise views on the practicalities of independence. “My argument has always been that it would be possible to set up an independent political state,” he explains, “but you wouldn’t get economic independence, and one without the other, I think, renders it quite a hollow concept.” Scotland, he says, needs to have a “clearer debate about just what the economics of nationalism look like”.

There is disagreement within his own party about its position on independence. Many within Scottish Labour privately agitate for a “pro-choice” position: advocating for the right to hold another referendum, if not independence itself. But Leonard points to Labour’s recent poor performance at the general election and European elections last year, and the party’s subsequent investigations into those results. “One of the reasons why we fared badly in those elections was because we didn’t have clarity on the constitutional position. That pro-choice position is what people’s interpretation [was] of what we were saying in that election.

“My view is: that didn’t work. People who want a second referendum or wanted an independent Scotland will vote SNP. They won’t vote Labour.”

Leonard says voters need “clarity on our position”, and to that end, the party’s manifesto next year will be clear that “we oppose a second independence referendum. Some people take a different view, but I think if we’re going to have clarity, that’s the clarity I think we need to have.”

The stakes for next year’s election are high. As Keir Starmer himself has made clear, an SNP majority would give Nicola Sturgeon a mandate to seek a second referendum. Leonard is far from the only politician concerned that this represents a last chance to save the Union.

“I do not underestimate the gravity of the situation that we are in,” Leonard says. But he also bridles at the suggestion that his party should, in considering the outcome of an SNP majority, “concede, eight months out, the outcome of [the] election. I think a lot of things can happen between now and then.”

I ask him whether he is politically closer to Starmer or Corbyn, and he and Whitaker burst into laughter. An old-school trade unionist, steeped in socialist history and inspired to enter politics by Tony Benn and his experience of the Thatcher years, Leonard has an obvious answer – albeit an awkward one. “Look, I am the product of all of my experience,” he says eventually. “I clearly place myself on the left of the Labour Party, but I don’t align myself to any particular group on this side of the Labour Party.”

In that spirit, he distances himself from Lisa Nandy’s suggestion, earlier that day, that Labour could well drop its commitment to common ownership of rail, mail, energy and water. “In devolved areas, where it’s our call to make, we are saying we do see public ownership as being part of the future.”

We meet on the same day as Starmer’s conference speech, which Leonard caught on the radio. “I suspect Keir is not going to come to Scotland and talk a lot about patriotism,” he notes. He is, however, careful to emphasise their common approach, and the “shared goal of rebuilding trust in the Labour Party in Scotland.”

I suggest the strategy for Labour’s recovery in Scotland is less clear than that for winning back “Red Wall” seats in the north of England and in Wales. He doesn’t accept that. “The strategy that we’ve got is to be an effective opposition in here, and out in the country. Our strategy is to bring into parliament and the public arena the things that are going on out there, that are not really understood properly in here.”

“Goal one,” he explains, “is increasing the number of Labour MSPs returning here. Goal two is overtaking the Tories and getting into second place, and goal three is exceeding that and starting to be in a position where we are challenging for power.” He doesn’t, however, rule out staying on if Labour fails to retain the 23 seats it currently holds. “I’m not contemplating loss. I will take a decision next year based on what the election result is.”

Leonard has a huge amount of work to do if he is to regain the faith of his colleagues, the seats they have lost, and the influence of his party. His success or failure may have ramifications not just for Scottish Labour, but for everyone in the UK.

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman