Here we go again. One by one, Scottish Labour MSPs are calling for their leader, Richard Leonard, to resign. The figure is currently at four, but according to the BBC’s Glenn Campbell there’s more waiting in the wings. Leonard has responded by saying these MSPs were always opposed to his leadership and are waging an “internal war” against him. You are forgiving for wondering: what is it the party actually has left to fight about?
Leonard was depicted as the last Corbynista standing by one of those rebel MSPs, Jenny Marra, in The Times.
“Richard’s leadership was tied from the start to the disaster of Jeremy Corbyn’s project,” she wrote.
But Leonard – who never took to Corbynism with much verve – was quick to give it up upon its demise. He has dutifully got into line with Keir Starmer over all the key questions, and in fact appears less politically independent now than when the left was in charge of the UK party. The election of Jackie Baillie MSP, who had previously been removed from the shadow cabinet by Leonard, as deputy leader, and the anti-Corbyn MP Ian Murray’s return as shadow Scottish secretary has left Leonard boxed in. If this is a left v right split it appears entirely internal to the party in its political dynamics.
Neil Findlay MSP, who is on the left of the party, has claimed that what this is really about is selection processes. A gender balanced list seat system has been mooted, which could see some current male MSPs demoted down the list, and therefore probably out of a job. Leonard suggested on STV last night that many of the rebel MSPs may not survive selection processes. The rebels insist it has nothing to do with holding on to their seats, and is about the fact that Leonard is not the right person to lead them into a Scottish election.
Whatever is really going on, the party is now on the verge of dumping its fourth leader since the 2014 independence referendum. In that time there has been six elections in Scotland, and the party has only came second place in one of them, in 2015, where it won just one MP. In the five subsequent elections it has come no better than third, behind the Tories in all of them. Its best performance by vote share since 2014 was when Corbynism was at its peak, in the 2017 General Election. Whatever happens with Leonard, the party’s problems are chronic, and can’t be solved by getting someone who can ‘cut through with the public’ and all those other horrible leadership cliches. It lost its place as the dominant centre-left force in Scotland because it found itself on the wrong side of its core support in the 2014 referendum, and thus was replaced by the SNP.
There is no rule which says historic party’s are entitled to make a come back. They can just whither into irrelevance. The term Pasokification was coined to describe centre-left parties in Europe which abandoned its base to harsh austerity, and basically disappeared as a relevant electoral force. It was named after the Greek party Pasok, which had went from being the dominant force in Greek politics, winning the General Election in 2009 with 44 per cent of the vote, to fading out of existence six years later, after voters abandoned it wholesale for its complicity in gutting the country on the altar of austerity.
SLabification is a slightly different phenomenon, since it is bone-headed commitment to the UK which sacrificed its base of support, but a similar political dynamic can be observed whereby it can’t learn from the original sin because it is ideologically committed to it. Pasok couldn’t learn from the first ‘Troika’ deal it signed up to even after its vote share had fallen to just 12 per cent, joining a coalition government in 2012 which signed up to a new round of austerity. It’s vote then fell to less than five per cent in 2015 and that was all she wrote.
Having flirted with a sensible position on Scotland’s constitutional future under Corbyn, Scottish Labour is now as committed as it ever was to defending the UK and opposing the right of the Scottish Parliament to hold an independence referendum. Ian Murray MP has even said the party was right to “destroy itself” to help save the Union in 2014. That’s fine if that’s what you genuinely believe, but then don’t expect to do well in elections – the real diehard unionists have their party of choice, and it’s not Labour. Leonard can’t turn around SLabification, but I doubt any leader can.
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