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27 November 2017

Richard Leonard will show whether Jeremy Corbyn is a personality or a policy

Brexit and Corbynism may not prove as compatible in Scotland. 

By Julia Rampen

“I often feel deeply embarrassed by it,” Jeremy Corbyn said in 2017 of the hero worship that has surrounded him since his election as Labour leader two years earlier. “It’s not my wish, and it’s not my doing.”

Corbyn has always maintained he is merely articulating the demands of a wider movement (the first time I met him, at a pre-leadership anti-austerity march where his name was everywhere, he attributed it to “maybe something I said”). His popularity stemmed not from his apathy towards ties, or the fact he is an old, white man who can get away with saying things that are socialist, or even his personal attributes, like his ability to make people feel he was listening to them, but the ideals he espoused. There is now a chance to put this leadership theory to the test. His name is Richard Leonard.

Scottish Labour’s new leader has insisted he’s not a Corbynista, describing himself as “too long in the tooth”, since he has held the same unfashionably left-wing views for roughly the same length of time. In many ways, though, this makes him resemble Corbyn more. The Campaign for Socialism promptly embraced him, and this McMomentum embarked on a social media campaign that Leonard – only a recent convert to Twitter – could hardly have envisaged six months earlier. Leonard has strong ties to unions. He also faces the same awkward quandary as Corbyn – his rival, Anas Sarwar, won the bulk of endorsements from parliamentarians, but Leonard gained the majority of party members and affiliated supporters. Here, though, Leonard has an advantage. Even during a campaign that many Sarwar supporters denounced as divisive, Leonard himself continued to be spoken of warmly. Despite his outsider rhetoric, his years knocking on doors for candidates he disagreed with ideologically may have helped. 

On Monday, Scottish Labour supporters could get the chance to make the comparison between Corbyn and Leonard first hand, when they spoke side by side in Glasgow. In a speech citing Robert Burns and Irvine Welsh, Corbyn spoke of a “radical Labour Government in Westminster and Richard Leonard leading a radical Labour government in Holyrood”, while Leonard promised to take his policy programme to the membership. So far, the Corbyn formula is working. 

After years of elections and referendums, however, bar another snap election there is unlikely to be a forthcoming opportunity to try it out for real. In the meantime, Brexit chugs on, and here Leonard is at his weakest in a country where every local authority area and every mainstream politician backed Remain. Back in August, I followed Corbyn to the isle of Lewis, whose residents have been traditionally synonymous with fishing, but today are more worried about the loss of vital EU grants, and watched as school children quizzed him on staying in the single market and customs union.

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Leonard is not a Europhile, and he succeeded in winning while maintaining a Corbynite Brexit fudge in the face of the pro-Remain Sarwar. All the same, the latter’s campaign was marred by questions over his family’s decisions, rather than his stance on the EU. The Scottish National Party-led Scottish government continues to rail against Brexit (although a third of SNP voters surveyed voted Brexit, SNP insiders are not unduly worried about a Nigel Farage in tartan trews). The Corbynite Brexit fudge may go down well enough at the moment. But appetites can change.