THEORETICALLY, THERE SHOULD be an element of shock in Richard Leonard’s resignation as Scottish Labour leader, so close to a Holyrood election. But nobody seems even remotely surprised. The party has been flailing in misery, dwindling in the polls and suffering from an acute identity crisis throughout his tenure.
For all that Leonard’s socialism should be outlandishly radical, he has struggled to stand out or even gain name recognition. Yet his individual weaknesses pale next to Labour’s wider failure to address the failure of the British state or the question of popular sovereignty. Recent surveys show more than a third of Scottish Labour voters from 2019 have switched to the SNP amid booming support for independence. No amount of charisma would stem that tide. The problems are partly structural and partly rooted in the party’s ideological biases.
Leonard was elected at the height of Corbynmania. However, this always belied the fact that Scotland was the most conservative bloc of the overall Labour Party, as demonstrated during the second anti-Corbyn coup in the party. “While England and Wales were both overwhelmingly in favour of Jeremy Corbyn, Scotland favoured the challenger, Owen Smith,” noted YouGov. “Furthermore, party members in Scotland are slightly more centrist than their English and Welsh counterparts”. Nonetheless, Corbyn’s bounce in the 2017 election discredited the right-wing, leaving the unknown Leonard to win a surprise victory.
Many young Corbynistas predicted that Leonard would swiftly bat the SNP aside. In truth, Leonard proved just as tone deaf to the dynamics of post-referendum Scotland as his colleagues on the right of the party. In one remark, he compared Nicola Sturgeon to Margaret Thatcher. The comment was particularly futile because it highlighted a Scottish Labour delusion that they still spoke for “the communities” decimated by Tory rule, when, in fact, those areas had decisively rejected Labour after their alliance with Conservatives in 2014.
On independence, Leonard fell into the standard Labour trap of talking down to Yes voters as if they were deluded. His solution, invariably, was to demobilise constitutional questions with top-down ameliorative reforms, which always suggested a politics more rooted in Fabianism (with a touch of communitarian rhetoric) than a radical politics of the working-class, which has always implied republican traditions of self-rule. Leonard never appreciated that the democratic deficit was also a question of class, demonstrating, above all, a misreading of the Thatcher era.
As Corbynism waned, Leonard found himself encircled. Scottish Labour’s right-leaning instincts reasserted themselves, symbolised last year by the election of Jackie Baillie, whose politics nowadays amount to little more than battle-hardened Union Jackery.
With the right reasserting themselves, Leonard has been the victim of internal sniping for some time. Neil Findlay put the blame squarely on the corridor plotters: “Looks like those who have led a three-year campaign of briefings to journalists, leaks of private conversations and the constant feeding of stories to the media to bring down a decent and honest man have succeeded. These flinching cowards and sneering traitors make me sick.”
It’s hard not to sympathise with Findlay’s assessment, and with Findlay himself, one of the few principled MSPs in the Parliament (even if, like me, you reject his constitutional stances).
Yet Scottish Labour’s utterly unsympathetic right-wing have a point. To the extent that left-wing Unionists exist in Scotland today, they all vote Labour and have nowhere else to go. But that bloc is small. Since Labour has no hope of reaching Scotland’s majority of yes sympathisers, barring a major overhaul on the constitution, their best bet is to compete with the Tories for small-c conservatives and the red, white and blue identity vote. This, I assume, is the logic.
Or maybe, just maybe, Scottish Labour could seriously address the crisis of the British state. That would risk an even more monumental decline, if the party was unable to convince its small sliver of left-unionist voters to travel with them. But the payoff could be far greater. Would this infamously conservative party change the habits of a lifetime? I doubt it, but let’s at least hope the internal debates rise above the level of platitudes.