Back to the future?

Tommy Kane looks behind the resignation of the Scottish Labour leader

Yesterday, Richard Leonard, a thoroughly decent man, eventually succumbed to the constant, sometimes vicious, campaign to oust him and left Scottish Labour looking for its tenth leader in the devolution era. It’s a turnover of leaders that accurately reflects the downward spiral Scottish Labour has been on since devolution and speaks to the irony of how the Party of devolution has never ever got to grips with it. Timid managerialism and unambitious policy have characterised Labour – and indeed the SNP – at Holyrood, while some have not quite worked out the demarcation lines between Holyrood and Westminster.

To this day, many senior people in the Party do not understand what policy areas are devolved to the Scottish Parliament and what powers are reserved to Westminster. North and south of the border the Labour Party has never quite worked out what powers and responsibilities in the Party itself are devolved and what are reserved. With some very serious questions now being posed over the role of Keir Starmer in Leonard’s exit, it seems that this confusion extends to, and continues, in Starmer’s office at Westminster.

Labour’s demise in Scotland however is more complex than not getting to grips with devolution and it’s about so much more than Richard Leonard’s leadership. This is especially when considering that Labour lost votes and seats at every Scottish Parliamentary election, and that the SNP first took control of the Scottish Parliament in May 2007 when Blair was still PM.  New Labour’s embrace of the Thatcherite consensus with a few sweeteners thrown in, plus Iraq, provoked deep disappointment. Meanwhile having a political opponent who presented themselves as having similar social democratic credentials to the Labour Party accelerated the decline by giving voters another  -in their eyes, though wrongly – palatable option.

Throw in endemic complacency and a sense of entitled electoral superiority that took voters for granted, and you had a toxic mix that festered away prior to an explosion of disappointment and anger. That explosion took place in 2015, less than a year after the 2014 referendum, when the then Labour leadership cut a deal to campaign with the Tories and told Scots that we were all ‘Better Together’.

The problem was of course that too many Scots didn’t feel ‘Better Together’. For decades de-industrialisation, decline and a loss of hope had shaped the lives of too many people and communities who were genuinely feeling left behind. In 2014 they were suffering from the latest (unprecedented) attack on their wages, welfare, terms and conditions, public services and pensions by a vicious Tory/Liberal Government. This was the same Tory Government that Labour decided to campaign alongside and tell people they were ‘Better Together’ with, in a status quo that had them in charge. It was political suicide and the volcano blew in 2015. People lost patience with Labour.

What makes Leonard’s departure all the more sad is that, unlike the architects of Labour’s demise he understood why Labour lost support. He wanted to rid Labour of the unambitious and timid managerialism that had beset the Party in Scotland. Unlike his predecessors he had a plan to use the Scottish Parliament as a vehicle to transform Scotland. He put clear red water between him and his leadership opponent Anas Sarwar and indeed the SNP, with a radical policy platform that really would have transformed lives.  

He thought clearly about the need to redistribute wealth and power, to extend public and other forms of common ownership, to develop an industrial strategy and a commitment to intervene in the economy, use procurement to drive up wages and terms and conditions so that every public pound spent helped workers, and via a wealth tax, he made a commitment to invest in the people and communities who frankly have been paid lip service to in the devolution era. His message of Real Change and an end to tinkering around the edges resonated.  A popular figure in Scottish Labour circles, he won convincingly.

From day one, however, his election was never accepted by opponents inside the Party, let alone outside. The same people who led Labour to disaster, including his opponent Anas Sarwar who was Deputy Leader in 2014, could not get over the result. They did not accept Richard and they didn’t accept his policy platform. In what is, compared to Westminster, a really small group at Holyrood, it necessitates every Labour MSP pulling together behind the democratically elected leader, respecting him and his position, but even more importantly, the membership who elected him. Or so you would think.

Instead, from day one, Sarwar set up, what was effectively, a parallel press operation with a former Daily Mail hack and Labour Head of Press at its helm. There was from the outset of Richard Leonard’s leadership a relentless slew of negative briefings, from the ubiquitous ‘Labour insider’, ‘Senior Labour Source’ or ‘a source close to’. Private meetings, including ‘hellish’ and poisonous MSP group meetings, were leaked to the press, while Scottish Executive Committee meetings became a pathetic soap opera with political journalist Paul Hutcheon becoming producer, director and editor in chief, with incessant tweets in real time going out straight from whoever in the room felt it necessary to undermine Richard Leonard.

The writing was arguably on the wall for Richard when Jackie Baillie was elected Deputy Leader. Extremely hardworking, capable and able, it’s a shame that too often her qualities are used only internally. Parliamentary group meetings, rather than supporting the leadership, became a whining groupfest with Baillie and Sarwar often leading the way. After the attempted coup against him failed a few short months after her election as Deputy Leader, Leonard demoted Baille. The inference was clear. But shortly after that, Anas Sarwar was brought back into his Shadow Cabinet as Spokesperson on the Constitution. The two people he had sacked for ‘allegedly’ undermining him were back in.

While I am a supporter of Richard Leonard, it’s important to recognise mistakes so that we can learn from them as we renew and recover. Richard Leonard was arguably too nice, too inclusive and thought that, by being so, others would reciprocate. Not so. In addition, our constitutional position, not just the new Spokesperson on the Constitution, was an Achilles’ heel of his leadership.

His position on the constitution was out of step with a large proportion of the membership who had supported him. The thinking is clear. Labour won 42% of the vote in 2010 but only 24% in 2015. The difference is approximately the number of those 2010 Labour voters who voted Yes in 2014 and who went on to vote SNP in 2015. If Labour is to win back those huge swathes of voters whom we have lost to the SNP, we need to tone down the unionist rhetoric, speak to and reach out to lost voters and understand why they voted Yes and now SNP. Then we should accept Scotland’s right to determine its own future, albeit ensure a process where we do not have neverendums, and then argue on the substance about why we think, for class reasons, that independence is economic madness and will not be the silver bullet necessary to solve Scotland’s ills. Not to do so allows the SNP to play the victim and stoke grievance against the ‘undemocratic Westminster’ Parties. In short, it plays into their hands.

Sadly, it seems we are further way than ever from taking the sensible position on the constitutional question. The same failed Better Together team are back and the same failed strategy on the constitution and timid unambitious politics of conformity will accompany them. We are back full circle. Starmer has bought into the unionist cause and hasn’t quite worked out that Edinburgh South does not reflect Scotland as a whole. He should really speak to others in Scotland who live outside that constituency.

It is clear now that Leonard’s removal has all been (not so) tidily sorted via Starmer’s office, some Lords and high-end donors. We really are back to the future, where rich cronies call the shots and the UK leader thinks he can treat the democratically elected Scottish Leader as if he is some sort of High Commissioner of a UK Colony that he can remove and appoint at his whim. A London MP removing the Scottish leader is not a good look. It exposes a complete lack of understanding of the Scottish body politic and recent history.

Has he not been told about the damage that was caused by the ‘branch office’ jibe made by Johann Lamont as a result of Ed Milliband’s office’s attitude towards Scotland? The bad optics are compounded when considering that the move tallies with the wishes of Lords and millionaire fridge magnates.  I know it’s not a popular view in and around team Starmer, but he really should look at Jeremy Corbyn’s respectful approach to Scotland as a guide to working with the Scottish leadership on a day-to-day basis.    

What happens next is critical. If the plan has been hatched by Murray, Baillie, Sarwar and Starmer and if it is to anoint Anas Sarwar unopposed then Labour is really facing an existential crisis. It will see the membership haemorrhage, more than it already is, and voters that we need to win back possibly being lost forever. It will also expose (again) Starmer’s lack of understanding of what needs to be done in Scotland, as well as bad political judgement (again).

The reality is that Sarwar will still have the same questions around private schools, the living wage and (un)unionised workplaces that crippled his leadership campaign. Only this time he also has questions to answer on recent allegations that he has abused members’ data for his own ends. The question the press, and more importantly members and voters, will ask is whether anyone having to answer questions on such core tenets is the right person to lead the party of Labour. Moreover, such questions around his suitability and his character, which have never been satisfactorily addressed, demonstrate why Labour must avoid rushing into a coronation of him as leader. It is one thing being plagued with these questions as a candidate; it’s another being anointed as leader without having to actually answer them.

Repeating the mistakes of the past with the same people in charge must be avoided at all costs. It can be done. There are a new batch of candidates, untainted by recent failures, standing in the regional list selections. We have a Scottish Parliamentary election in May. We should wait to have a leadership election after that, when we will have our cadre in place for the next Scottish Parliamentary election. That would be the wise and sane approach. Let’s hope wisdom prevails. 

Tommy Kane is a Labour activist and Jeremy Corbyn’s former advisor in Scotland.

Image: The World Transformed 2018 in Liverpool; Source: Richard Leonard; Author: Kevin Walsh from Preston Brook, England, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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