01 Sep 2017
September 1, 2017
Since various folk have ruled themselves out, it seems that Anas Sarwar and Richard Leonard will contest the Scottish Labour leadership. Here’s a few thoughts based upon a little experience rather than any insider knowledge (at all!).
Anas Sarwar seemed to me in parliament pretty much like he seems to everyone else now. He’s charming, smart, well-heeled and has what I consider to be the important advantage of having Pakistani heritage. He’s quite obviously a New Labour guy who would have appealed to Scottish Tory/Labour switchers folk in the olden days. Like Kezia Dugdale, he’s part of the anti-Corbyn crew. There’s no point pretending otherwise.
It’s nonsense to suggest, as some commentators have, that Labour folk (or anyone, really) would condemn someone because their parents chose private education for them. Yet while it’s true that children with Pakistani heritage still underperform in state schools and in London it’s perfectly common for regular minority ethnic parents of the left to send their kids to private school, a lot of regular Labour folk – far from just ‘Corbynites’ – will hold his choice of private education in Scotland for this own kids against him. With education at the centre of the political agenda in Scotland, this would also be a hard sell on the doorstep for party activists.
Richard Leonard (ironically, also educated privately, I’ve read) was the president of the student’s union at the university I attended after being a Black Watch private soldier. I wasn’t involved in politics, but I met him a bit because the students union paid me a (relative) fortune to be head bouncer. I remember he did a bit of work for the local MEP Alex Faulkner, who was generally viewed as a left-winger. And I think possibly Dennis Canavan too. When I became an MP, he was a senior official at GMB Scotland and I bumped into him a little then. Essentially, my impression of him has always been that, like Sarwar, he’s a memorably charming and smart bloke. And just as Sarwar’s strongly associated with New Labour in my mind, Leonard’s strongly associated with what we might call the sensible further-left.
Leonard’s a proper, time-served union politician – his short tenure as an MSP doesn’t harm him at all. Indeed, if the present, super-capable, UK GMB General Secretary – Tim Roache – fancied it, he’d be a potential future UK Labour leader right away. The striking thing about Leonard for now, though, and why I think he’s the person for Scottish Labour to choose as leader, is that while he’s certainly the more appealing candidate to Corbynites – as a serious and capable trade unionist of the left – he’s also likely to be by far the most appealing person to possible SNP/Labour switchers; especially young ones.
In the end, Labour folk in Scotland have to decide if their best option is to try to get some floating Tories back (which hasn’t gone very well recently, right? Some Labour folk seem to have got confused and started cheering when Tories win seats) or instead exploit the SNP’s weakness on the left. In my view, the best course for Labour in Scotland is to be entirely true to themselves, fashion a sensible agenda for Scotland in proper partnership with Jeremy Corbyn, and put a decisive agenda further left than the SNP can run with.
I’ve said before that it’s a mistake for Scottish Labour folk to think they can win Tories back now. Ruth Davidson’s helped a lot of natural Tories ‘go home’ from the SNP and they’re not going back. But I think the SNP still have more to gain by stemming the flow to the right than by courting the further-left.
A lot of clever SNP folk understand they can’t stay in government forever. And yet there’s still a big anti-Tory majority in Scotland. It seems to me that there’s every possibility next time around that the SNP will still be the largest party, but that Labour – if it plays its cards right – could decisively hold the balance of power and push through policies further to the left than the SNP would be prepared to on its own. Whether that would be a full coalition or not would be a matter for the party and leader, but the important thing is it would be in a position to decide.
The person most likely to get Scottish Labour to that point, no doubt in my mind, is Richard Leonard. Maybe that condemns him, of course! But I’d say one final thing here.
It’s bonkers for Labour to continue to stand against a referendum on independence. After all, if unionists are so convinced of their argument, what’s there to fear? The only possible argument against a new referendum in the face of Brexit is that you think the democratic will favours independence and you seek to deny the people what they want.
It will make much more sense for a new Labour leader to support the call for a new referendum, argue for the union but also encourage the many pro-independence supporters within Labour to put their case too. That way, they’ll tempt a few more further-left SNP folk across and that could be decisive in a whole swathe of former-Labour seats. If Labour’s new leader were correct that most folk will vote against independence, then he’d deliver a few extra MPs for Jeremy Corbyn and maybe hold a bit of power in Scotland into the bargain. And if he were wrong – as frankly I hope he would be – then Labour would be back in business in an independent Scotland with literally everything to play for.
Makes sense, right?