Scottish Labour Shifts Left with Richard Leonard. Jeremy Corbyn Will Count on His Success
In a widely expected result, Richard Leonard has been elected as the leader of the Scottish Labour Party. Yorkshire-born Leonard - a GMB trade union organiser who entered the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood in 2016 - defeated former deputy leader Anas Sarwar with 56 percent of the vote.
The Glaswegian Sarwar was described as the centre-left candidate, but both MSPs praised Jeremy Corbyn and promoted him as a future UK Prime Minister. Leonard is considered a Corbynite but he refuses to be pigeonholed as such.
Upon his victory Leonard praised Sarwar and in the spirit of unity pledged that his adversary will play a “vital role” in his leadership.
Leonard is taking on a tough job. He succeeds Kezia Dugdale, who led Labour through the 2016 Scottish parliamentary elections that saw it lose its opposition status to Ruth Davidson’s Conservatives, and the 2017 local elections that left Labour leading no Scottish councils.
In the UK general election Labour won seven Scottish Westminster seats, only three ahead of the Liberal Democrats.
The Scottish Tories won thirteen, eroding Nicola Sturgeon’s authority as First Minister and allowing Theresa May to cling on as Prime Minister. It was a far cry from 1997 to 99 when Labour swept Scottish Westminster seats and formed a Holyrood coalition with the Lib Dems.
To restore his party’s fortunes Leonard seeks to challenge the Scottish National Party and the Tories from the left, at the heart of his manifesto being an opposition to social injustice.
Condemning the impact of the UK Tory government’s public spending cuts - as well as the housing shortages and child poverty seen under the SNP - Leonard outlines a “radical policy agenda” for Scotland implemented with devolved powers.
To reverse local authority spending cuts, he proposes a one percent windfall tax on the wealthiest ten percent raising £3.7 billion, while decentralising power to councils to repossess unused land and build 12,000 new homes per year. He advocates a Mary Barbour Law - named after the Glasgow rent strike leader - to regulate rents and strengthen the rights of private tenants.
Leonard would increase child benefit and end the tax exempt status of private schools to fund free school meals and uniforms for primary age children. To reduce energy prices Leonard envisions a National Energy Corporation promoting cooperatives and mutualisation, which gives Labour a clearer idea of how public ownership might work in practice.
Labour’s Scottish support has been squeezed by a dominant SNP, defined by anti-Toryism as much as by independence
Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU. Leonard rejects a second EU referendum but insists that any Brexit deal that undermines the rights of workers and EU citizens should be blocked at Westminster.
While resisting SNP calls for a second Scottish independence referendum, Leonard reaches out to pro-independence voters motivated by a “vision of hope”, especially the young Scots who voted to leave the UK in wide margins. He seeks to channel their optimism into a progressive unionism.
Leonard is personally against the Faslane-based Trident nuclear weapons programme - divisive in Scotland - but he accepts its renewal in line with Labour’s official position.
The 2014 anti-independence vote may have solidified the union, but Leonard’s balancing act shows that Brexit and Trident persist as difficult issues for Scottish Labour. The SNP will use their objection to both to keep the independence flame alive.
At the next general election Labour has the potential to win a raft of English seats and it enjoys a wide lead in Wales. But Labour’s Scottish support has been squeezed by a dominant SNP, defined by anti-Toryism as much as by independence, and by Tories who have enjoyed a Scottish renewal as the stalwarts as unionism.
If Labour only wins a UK parliamentary minority - which the polling average forecasts - then the best outcome for Labour is a Corbyn government propped up by SNP or Lib Dem parliamentary votes. The Tories unexpectedly won the 2015 general election by warning English voters of this possibility.
Before Leonard’s election Scottish Labour saw a jump in the opinion polls that predicted the party regaining its opposition status at Holyrood. It is a promising signal that the ideas debated between Leonard and Sarwar resonated with voters.
The leader before Dugdale, Johann Lamont, complained that the Westminster leadership treated Scottish Labour like a mere “branch office”. Now the party’s success must be a priority.
Leonard’s goal as leader is not just to overtake the Tories or even become First Minister. His message of “real change” breaking through in the homeland of Keir Hardie - and the prime ministers of the New Labour era - is also integral to the party returning to government at Westminster.
About the author
Jacob Richardson began his career with Disclaimer and writes on culture, politics and society. Politically he is a democratic socialist and Labour Party supporter. His other interests include cinema, psychoanalysis and professional wrestling.
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