Will Richard Leonard be ousted as Scottish Labour leader?

The left-winger has dismally failed to improve his party’s performance. But its problems go much deeper.

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Will and should Richard Leonard survive as leader of the Scottish Labour Party? The question is not a new one, but it has now been given fresh impetus by a rebellion among key MSPs.

A delegation visited Leonard and told him he should stand down. Last night, the party’s justice spokesperson James Kelly quit his post and called for the leader to resign. Kelly was backed publicly by two of Labour’s most respected MSPs – Jenny Marra and Daniel Johnson. As the party faces a dismal result in next year’s Scottish parliament election (with Labour on just 14 per cent in a recent YouGov poll), the rebels felt forced to act.

The case against Leonard is easily made, so let’s make it. Since taking over as leader of the Scottish Labour Party in November 2017, the left-wing Yorkshireman has presided over electoral catastrophe in the two opportunities granted to him.

In the 2019 European Parliament election, the party’s campaign, led by Leonard and managed by his left-wing ally, Neil Findlay MSP, was a disaster. Scottish Labour backed a soft Brexit while the SNP pushed a pro-Remain message. The party lost both of the seats it had previously held and finished fifth behind the SNP, the Brexit Party, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives. Richard said sorry.

In the subsequent general election, Scottish Labour lost all six of the seats it had gained before Leonard’s leadership at the 2017 UK election, and was reduced once more to a single MP north of the border. Richard said sorry again

Of course, some of this failure was spillover from the unpopularity, splits and confused messaging of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour at a UK level. The SNP was boosted by Scotland’s animus towards Brexit.

Nevertheless, Leonard has unarguably failed in the three years of his leadership to re-establish Labour, not just as an alternative devolved government, but even as a contender to be the main opposition. He voted for Corbyn in both 2015 and 2016, and has pursued a policy programme – “radical” is his favourite word – focused on trade unions, blue-collar workers and nationalisation, with little to say about wealth creation or to middle Scotland. “Richard has lots of policies,” says one senior Scottish Labour figure, “but they’re all wrong.”

Leonard has also failed to make any impact as a national figure. A recent YouGov poll found only 10 per cent of voters think he is doing well, while 37 per cent believe he’s doing badly. Perhaps worse, when asked how they thought the Labour leader was performing at his job, 53 per cent of voters responded with “don’t know”. These numbers are not going to improve.

See also: Chris Deerin on how coronavirus may accelerate the break-pu of the UK

The polling ahead of next year’s election offers no solace. While the Conservatives are supported by between 20 and 25 per cent of voters, Labour is stubbornly stuck in the mid-teens. The SNP, meanwhile, after 13 years in government, poll in the fifties, look likely to win an overall majority, and will then claim to have a mandate for a second independence referendum. Support for independence is now consistently above 50 per cent. 

The numbers suggest my opening question should be rephrased: how does Leonard have the brass neck to stay on? One answer is based on another set of statistics. Party sources suggest the rebels don’t yet have a majority in either the parliamentary party or Labour’s ruling Scottish Executive Committee, both of which could pass a no-confidence motion that would force the issue. “They probably have about 45 per cent in both,” says a well-informed source. The reasons for this are mixed: residual loyalty among the lobby fodder, and uncertainty about who would replace him.

The favoured successor among Leonard’s critics is Anas Sarwar, a former Scottish Labour deputy leader and the son of the former MP Mohammad Sarwar. However, says a source, “Anas may be the best answer at the moment but a fair number are unconvinced by him.” Another contender is the current deputy leader Jackie Baillie – “She would probably get it by acclaim,” adds my source – but she is said not to want the job.

Although Leonard was never a full member of the Corbyn caucus, insiders believe he is under pressure from the remnants of the project in Scotland and at Westminster to stay in place. “He is the last man standing, and they don’t want to be seen to lose to the other side,” says a senior party figure.

Leonard’s critics insist the rebellion is Scotland-made, and not being driven by Keir Starmer’s team at Westminster. They say lessons were learned from the experience of moving the former shadow cabinet minister Jim Murphy from London to Edinburgh in a failed and short-lived experiment in 2014. “Jim came in and it looked like a London takeover,” says a source. “Everyone is aware that can’t be repeated.” Instead, Starmer is said to be “scratching his head” about how to resurrect the party’s fortunes in its former heartland.

The drama points once again to a major problem facing Scottish Labour. It has almost no talent pipeline in Scotland. The traditional route from local government has been closed off as the party has lost control of the big city councils, while insiders believe mediocre and ageing MSPs are effectively “bed-blocking” winnable constituencies and places at the top of the additional member lists.

Whatever the truth, Scottish Labour is undeniably in a sorry state: lagging in the polls, with an ineffective leader and no obvious replacement, and lacking a serious policy agenda with broad voter appeal. With the numbers suggesting Scotland may be heading for independence, the consequences of the party’s collapse could be epochal. While Leonard’s defenestration is necessary, it will not be sufficient.

See also: Rory Scothorne on why the SNP now seems unstoppable

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

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