The red herring: one year of Richard Leonard’s Scottish Labour leadership

Richard Leonard has not changed Scottish politics; he hasn’t even changed Scottish Labour

RICHARD LEONARD thinks Scottish independence would be a bad idea. This is not what we in the journalistic profession refer to as ‘breaking news’.

More specifically, Leonard believes that the “turmoil” of Brexit would be nothing compared to ending the 300 year “relationship” – a cute way of phrasing it – that is the Union.

Leonard voiced these idle fantasies by way of marking his one year anniversary as leader of Scottish Labour. He said very little that we haven’t heard before – and in doing so, provided an inadvertent summation of his tenure thus far.

Scottish Labour’s official celebration of their leader’s survival included a digital campaign, launched to highlight the party’s achievements and key policy pledges. Some of these are worthy enough, such as the securing of an inquiry into mental health services in NHS Tayside. Others – such as their claim that Labour has “changed the direction of political debate in Scotland” is more questionable. Believe it or not, the idea of taxing the wealthy had been thrown about quite a bit before Leonard came on the scene.

Over the course of a year, Richard Leonard has not changed Scottish politics. More noticeably – if less significantly – he has barely changed Scottish Labour. Why? Does he still have hope of doing so? Did he ever?

It is worth treading carefully, if only because so much of the analysis that greeted him as Kezia Dugdale’s successor – after running on a bold platform of Not Being Anas Sarwar - was less than accurate. In those early days, Scotland’s commentariat did not cover themselves in glory. In the interests of honesty, it should be said that your diligent parliamentary correspondent didn’t see Leonard’s candidacy coming either, but since then, CommonSpace has tried to report on Leonard as he is, rather than what some preferred to imagine him as.

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Think back: how many times was this former trade union bureaucrat described, in apparent seriousness, as a “firebrand”? Because as far as certain hacks are concerned, any politician with a union card and a raised voice cannot be anything else.

It should not come as a surprise to anyone, least of all political journalists, that the Left is a fractious place, but with copy to file and hot takes to deliver, more than a few commentators designated Leonard a veteran leftist and therefore a reliable Corbynite. There are few enough reliable Corbynites in Westminster, never mind in the Scottish party, but whatever. Some had already found a narrative they were happy with, and Leonard was the best that central casting could produce.

Appropriately enough, the most obvious division between Leonard and Corbyn has been on Scottish affairs. The UK Labour leader has repeatedly indicated – though without much enthusiasm – that he might be won round to a second independence referendum, if there was sufficient democratic backing. Leonard’s contrary position, meanwhile, may be taken as an indication that in Scottish Labour, some things never change.

A further distinction between Leonard and Corbyn was the UK Labour leader’s decades of experience as a parliamentarian – whether you agreed with him or not, Corbyn knew how to advance a debate, articulate an argument and work whichever political environment he happened to find himself in, whether holding a placard or speaking in the Commons. Unfortunately for Scottish Labour, Leonard lacked such experience, or the well-founded assurance that came with it.

His early appearances at FMQs were an episodic farce: it quickly became clear that nobody had bothered to slip a copy of ‘Devolution for Dummies’ into the new leader’s briefcase, and his painful lack of understanding over what was and, crucially, was not within the power of the Scottish Government became such a running gag that some even speculated over whether it was an intentional ploy to sow confusion amongst the Scottish public over precisely which powers Scotland enjoys. If it was, it didn’t work. For countless reasons, the Smith Commission was not poetry – it is not open to interpretation.

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If an assessment of Leonard’s first year was restricted to comparison with his predecessors and opponents within Labour, neither he nor his party would have anything to worry about. Ah, mais non.

Even amongst those who favoured her, Kezia Dugdale – who patterned her political persona on a rabbit caught in the headlights, and had to wait two excruciating years before the wheels of fate finally gave her peace – was expert only at turning sympathy into pity, which is no road to political power.

Jim Murphy was (and, in whatever Henry Jackson Society-funded bunker he currently resides within, presumably remains) a deeply strange individual whose bottomless capacity for self-promotion and self-delusion never convinced anyone whose career did not depend on it (take a bow, John McTernan).

If you wonder how “talking Scotland down” became such a tediously commonplace accusation in Scottish politics, recollect Johann Lamont, who never looked so happy – for her, anyway – as when confidently telling a post-indyref Holyrood chamber that “the eyes of the world have moved on”. Amazingly enough, even Scottish Labour had enough wit not to lead with ‘nobody cares about us’ on their election literature.

There was also Iain Gray. Remember him?

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From the battle with his rival Anas Sarwar, we may conclude that Leonard won by default, in consequence of a Sarwar campaign that anyone outside that particular bubble – a place of sensible suits and moderate language, where it’s no one’s business what your business affairs are – could see was cursed from the outset.

That Sarwar – who, the gossip says, not so long ago saw himself as a potential future prime minister – did not perceive his own candidacy’s obvious weaknesses, or the boon they offered to opponents and media alike, says something about the self-assured centrist’s less-than-intimate relationship with political reality; the fact he took so many of his colleagues along for the ride was further proof that many didn’t care for such reality either – and given Scottish Labour’s recent history, who could blame them?

To this reporter, Leonard did not achieve the leadership on his own merits; other than the tragicomedy of his once and future Blairite opponent, Leonard had the benefit of a campaign built on the hard work of many earnest, young and emphatically socialist grassroots activists, of a kind it was widely believed had deserted Labour post-2014. Thus far, their efforts have barely been recognised, much less rewarded.

Since taking the reins, has Leonard – who reliably appears at almost every union rally and protest outside of Holyrood, as though attending the wedding of a distant cousin – really done anything different? What has Scottish Labour taken the lead on?

He has been offered countless opportunities. Faced with a cash-grab by the UK Government, Leonard allowed the question of backdating the repayment of VAT to police and fire services in Scotland to be seized by the SNP (after all, that was awkward constitutional talk). After a shamefully extended period, Labour now favour Council Tax abolition – yet through Leonard’s mysterious reticence, that issue indisputably belongs to the Greens. And when John McDonnell made one of the most baffling statements on tax in living memory – a comment which, if you had placed a bet on it beforehand, would probably have bankrupt your local bookie – Leonard weakly managed that fashioning a tax policy which was inoffensive to the offensively rich was not his highest priority. This is not Bolshevism reborn.

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Analysing the apparent disagreements between Corbyn and the Scottish leader clumsily cemented at their party conference earlier this year, I argued that Leonard appears to seek a constitutional position that will remove the need for him to discuss constitutional affairs. I humbly suggested we should not hold our collective breath.

It may be worth going further: Leonard is an opposition politician in a devolved legislature who has little interest, talent or obvious affection for devolution. True, Labour has form in this area – until the 2014 referendum campaign, Gordon Brown’s greatest desire for Scottish politics was to put it in his rear-view mirror – but the Irn Broon, despite the delusional and never entirely abandoned hopes of a small segment of the party, is not and likely never will be its Scottish leader.

The SNP, which owes much of its success since the advent of devolution to successfully responding to external crises, from Iraq to austerity, now faces Brexit, a Gordian knot which refuses to yield to their multiple lines of attack.

Over the same period, Scottish Labour have shown little skill or inclination to adapt in the face of crisis, whether of the party or the British state. Once, people talked of Labour governments being delivered or saved by Scottish votes; now, if a General Election is on the cards for the near future and delivers Corbyn to Downing Street, it will be in spite of Scottish Labour’s leadership, not thanks to it.

All in all, Leonard hasn’t moved the party on from the same question marks under Kezia Dugdale’s leadership: If unionism is your chief credo, why not vote Tory? If the answer is left-wing principle, or a Scottish Government which will deliver socialism, they have a lot of work to do to make that story stick.

Picture courtesy of David Thomson

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