Alex Massie

Scottish Labour’s new leader is unlikely to trouble Davidson or Sturgeon

Scottish Labour's new leader is unlikely to trouble Davidson or Sturgeon
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In the end, it wasn’t even close. Richard Leonard now takes ownership of the black spot handed to every leader of the Scottish Labour party. He defeated Anas Sarwar, the son of the former MP Mohammed of that ilk and the early presumed favourite in the race, by 12,469 votes to 9,516. Mr Leonard is the party’s sixth leader in a decade.

Sarwar began the contest with several disadvantages, the first of which being that he was relatively well-known. That was sufficient to win him the support of most of his Holyrood colleagues but a grave handicap in terms of a party membership craving something - anything - new. His background hardly helped either. Being a millionaire who sends his children to one of Glasgow’s more prestigious private schools was one thing; the discovery that the Sarwar family business - a lucrative cash and carry enterprise - did not pay its workers the so-called living wage, quite another.

Leonard, by contrast, had the support of the trade unions, especially the GMB for whom he had worked as an organiser for twenty years before winning a list seat in the Scottish parliament last year. The contest was in large part dominated by an unseemly scramble to determine which candidate could sign up the most new members, with, in broad terms the unions matched against the Sarwar machine in Glasgow. The former prevailed amidst all the usual claims of dirty tricks and questionable dealing that are a traditional part of any Scottish Labour stramash.

Leonard began the campaign as the unknown quantity and, remarkably, ends it as the unknown quantity too. He is not a household name even in households that pay attention to politics. If nothing else, this gives him a frisson of novelty. But then the same could have been said about some of Labour’s previous leaders too and look where novelty got them.

If Sarwar tacked to the left during the campaign he did not do so entirely convincingly; Leonard by contrast had no reason to move anywhere. He has always been a man of the left and his victory helps move the Scottish party, hitherto relatively immune to Corbynism, closer to the UK party leadership. Sarwar had to prove his bona fides; Leonard did not and why vote for fake-leftism when you can have the real thing?

And there is, it must be allowed, an opportunity for Labour to attack the SNP from the left. The Corbyn impact at the general election has been exaggerated - Labour won just 10,000 or so more votes than it had in the disastrous 2015 election - but it is reasonable to assume that without it Labour’s result would have been little better than it had been two years ago. And of the 64 seats Labour need for a majority at Westminster, 18 of them are in Scotland. As a cock-a-hoop Owen Jones put it, Leonard’s victory means the party has taken “another step closer to socialism in Scotland and Britain”.

Well maybe. There is as yet little indication the Scottish people actually thirst for socialism. The constituency for socialism is enough to get Labour in the game; it is not large enough to allow them to win it. Then again, fairness demands we accept the same might be said about Ruth Davidson’s moderate Toryism. She too can be a player, but there is, as yet, little indication she can be a winner.

Even so, the opportunities for a combined assault on the SNP from right and left are obvious. The nationalists do not mind being in the centre of Scottish politics but being attacked for raising taxes too much and for not raising them enough gives the opposition some hope. For the first time in a long while, there is the chance for non-constitutional politics at Holyrood.

That, plus the kind of metal fatigue common to all long-serving governments, means that the battle for the 2021 Holyrood elections already looks interesting. The electoral system used in Edinburgh was designed to create a first-among-losers government; that equilibrium was shattered by a combination of SNP vigour, Labour lethargy and Tory incompetence. It may be in the process of being restored. There is - as matters stand - every chance no-one will really win in 2021, even if the SNP still seem likely to be the largest party.

Which is one reason why there remain plenty of people within the SNP who thirst for a second independence referendum before 2021. Alex Salmond, newly installed as the de facto leader of the alt-Nat movement, is obviously on board for this; so too is Tommy Sheppard.

The alternative nationalist view counsels patience, trusting that the 2021 election will be the moment the party receives it’s long-anticipated yet hitherto elusive “Brexit bounce”. That remains a live possibility. Be that as it may, the election of a new leader of the Scottish Labour party could not take place without some farce. Happily Kezia Dugdale, who precipitated this otherwise necessary election, was on hand to provide it. She is taking some time off from parliament to take part in the latest edition of “I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here”.

Ms Dugdale’s decision has not, it is fair to say, impressed her former friends in the party. Politics is supposed to be a serious business they say, not a means of celebrity-advancement. Well, true enough though some measure of perspective might be thought in order. The sky will not fall as a consequence of Ms Dugdale’s absence even if her decision to eat kangaroo nuts in Australia also diminishes her, putting her into the same category as luminaries such as George Galloway, Tommy Sheridan and Nadine Dorries each of whom have also forsaken parliaments for the joys of so-called reality television. Well, good luck to her I suppose.

As for Richard Leonard? Well, a public-school educated Englishman might seem an improbable savour of the Scottish Labour party but, having tried most other things, this was what was left to Labour. Ruth Davidson will not be too worried by his ascendancy and I’m not sure Nicola Sturgeon will be either.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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