They’re all it at. The dust has barely settled on the ruthless removal of Jackson Carlaw from the Scottish Conservative leadership yet it seems the Caledonian branch of the People’s Party are in rebellious mood too. Three Labour MSPs have called on Holyrood chief Richard Leonard to stand down, with moderate Jenny Marra describing his leadership as ‘tied from the start to the disaster of Jeremy Corbyn's project’. Leonard was chosen to replace Kezia Dugdale in 2017 but his lacklustre style, as much as his left-wing leanings, has seen him make no impact in almost three years.
Well, no impact on the SNP; he’s certainly left his mark on Scottish Labour. In the UK’s final European Parliament elections, he oversaw a vote collapse of almost 17 per cent, the loss of both Scottish Labour MEPs and an overall placement of fifth. In the 2019 general election, he lost all but one of Labour’s MPs north of the border and took the party to its lowest share of the vote in 109 years. The most recent YouGov poll puts Labour on 14 per cent with eight months to go until the next Holyrood election.
I’ve been arguing for some time that Leonard isn’t up to the job and should go. I do so without any malice, for although his leadership is indelibly linked to Corbynism, Leonard is a decent man who belongs to the old-fashioned, non-sectarian Footite left. But while he has managed a few decent turns against Nicola Sturgeon at First Minister’s Questions, his tenure has been what I call a ghost leadership. There is no memorable speech, policy proposal or campaign to his name. If he went tomorrow, he would leave so little trace that you would soon wonder if he had been there at all.
Another spectre is haunting Scottish Labour and that is the prospect of falling even further in next year’s devolved elections. The SNP is gulping up much of what remains of intergenerational Labour voters, while the Tories are trying to pick up those still committed to the Union and despairing of Labour’s wishy-washiness on it. (Wait till they get past the oratorical bravado and see just how weak and directionless the Tory stance is.) Six years after the independence referendum, Scottish Labour remains jammed in the teeth of a trap it created for itself when it established the Scottish Parliament. Rather than ‘killing nationalism stone dead’ as was promised at the time, devolution — and especially the SNP’s capture of its institutions — has made Scottish politics primarily a question of constitutions, not distributions. Social democratic manna is no match for the spiritual sustenance of nationalism.
Leonard insists he’s staying put. If he can cling on until next May, the SNP and the Tories will capitalise on his political listlessness, strategic cluelessness and near anonymity among the electorate. Provided he keeps the unions and key grassroots figures on board, though, he can probably hang tough, if not without a skirmish or too.
Were he to be ousted, potential successors would include Marra, Anas Sarwar or perhaps Paul Sweeney, though the former Glasgow North East MP currently lacks a parliamentary seat. Replacement is only the start, however. Whoever follows Leonard, now or later, will find their foot just as clamped in the same constitutional snare. To break free, he or she will need the question of Scexit put to bed one way or another. There are some in Scottish Labour who no longer believe in resisting nationalism and think Scexit would allow the party to revive itself, a sweetly naive notion to be filed alongside the dreamy certainty that independence would break up the SNP rather than consolidate its power. Others in Scottish Labour recognise that devolution reform offers the best chance of saving it and reorienting politics back to public services, the economy and social policy.
It’s not enough to be better than Richard Leonard. Scottish Labour needs a leader who grasps that his or her task is more than overhauling policy, personnel and positioning. The leader of Scottish Labour is, in effect, the Defender-in-Chief of devolution and to defend devolution, you have to understand it and understand its enemies.
In the 1980s, Scottish Labour dedicated its energies to demonising the Tories as not merely wrong and ruinous but out to get Scotland. Devolution was to be Scotland’s democratic shield, a political Iron Dome batting away Conservative attacks on the nation. We now know where that rhetoric led. Labour dabbled in nationalism but was eventually replaced by full-time professionals. Today, the primary threat to devolution is not from the Conservative government at Westminster but from the Nationalist government at Holyrood. The SNP is chipping away at devolution’s structural flaws to bring the whole edifice down. If Scottish Labour doesn’t believe in fighting against that, and in protecting and improving constitutional arrangements of its own devising, it should stop resenting the SNP’s electoral success and apply to merge with them. Scottish politics needs many things but another nationalist party is not one of them.
Richard Leonard should go. He should have gone a long time ago. He should never have been there in the first place. But his party should not fool itself that getting rid of him will be sufficient. Scottish Labour will not get a hearing for its social and economic vision while the constitution remains on the table. The party needs a leader who appreciates that, has the courage to say it out loud and the nerve to see it through.