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?


12 Responses to Richard Leonard’s just what Scottish Labour needs
  1. Flawed thinking, Eric. New Labour won three GEs by moving into the majority view, ie by out-Torying, the Tories.
    The only way Labour (or indeed the Tories if they manage to shake off their toxicity) can succeed is to move towards the ‘majority’ view in Scotland.
    That’s by embracing independence.
    Can’t see it happening, and I don’t think you can either.
    Meanwhile, Ruth Davidson in the New Statesman (!) is predicting Brexit disaster. Is she hoping no Tories read The New Statesman? She’s right on both counts.

  2. I think the SNP faced several problems in the rural areas where they lost seats, the first being that Yes voters simply didn’t turn out in the same numbers (voter fatigue, and generally being scunnered by the turn of events) whereas No voters did, and more of them voted tactically against the SNP because of their No vote and Col. Davidson encouraging them to make the election about Scottish independence rather than Brexit. So that would include Lib Dems. Also, in those areas there is an increasing English immigrant presence. Especially in Moray and Aberdeenshire. Some of these English immigrants might be Labour voters who flip flop between Labour and Tory in a way that no Scottish Labour voters ever would. So no, I don’t think it’s because Scottish small ‘c’ conservative voters in those areas deserted the SNP, I think the results were due to other factors. Some may well have been tempted to vote Tory out of frustration with the SNP. I hear that there has been a hold up over agricultural payments due to a new computer system, and yet others who were pro-Leave might have voted Tory in protest against Nicola Sturgeon’s pro-EU stance.

    But the 10 Tories now returned have been worse than useless as advocates for rural Scotland. They hold the balance of power in May’s government as much as the DUP! Yet where are they? Why aren’t they making similar demands for more dosh and more representation for rural Scotland in the Brexit talks? That vote might return to the SNP if the failures of the new Scots Tories are allowed to be revealed by the mainstream media.

    But don’t hold your breath that they will!

  3. It sounds like you’ve gone back to Labour and suport for the union. I don’t know what Leonard’s position on Scotland or self-determination is. But with his background, being English born and privately educated in an English public school, and his traditional trade union left wing credentials, my guess is that he sees the SNP as ‘separatists’ and Scottish aspiration for self determination as a distraction from ‘real’ politics, just as Corbyn does. So no, he’s not the best choice for Scotland. He will just try to pull the wool over Labour Scots’ eyes and like the mugs they are, they will believe him. So, bad news. I would much rather have Sarwar, because it’s much more obvious what he is. A centrist opposed to Scottish self determination. Plus he’s Scots born. So he has more understanding of Scotland. And more entitlement. The Labour left have an entrenched view of Labour as Scotland’s party despite the overwhelming evidence that they have shafted Scotland at every opportunity. Leonard will play to that and they will fall for it. Sad.

    I disagree about public school education because although you’re right that it’s a person’s parents who makes that choice for them, it still has the effect of inculcating an elite view of the world. Very few who are public school educated reject that view, and those who do, like Neal Acherson, who went to Eton (won a scholarship) only do so after further life experience. For Neal it was his time in the navy during conscription in the 1950s when he saw what the officer class was really like.

    Leonard is more dangerous because his anti-Scottish views are more hidden and will be hidden by the Scottish mainstream media.

  4. Thanks to Theresa May and Colonel Davidson,unionism in Scotland is now associated with various forms of bigotry.
    It doesn’t matter who Labour in Scotland elect as branch manager,because of their support for the union,they will be tarred with the same brush.
    Bigots Together.
    Probably unfair to many genuine Labour people but that is the reality of the situation with British politics.
    The politics of exclusion and their old arguments about Nationalists putting up borders pales in comparison to where the British state is going.
    This may well appeal to a section of the Scottish electorate but it is a minority and that,for now,is where unionism in Scotland is,despite the bravado expressed by HM press.
    Thanks Eric.

  5. I think you’re right on all points.

    Unfortunately, I fully expect Anas Sarwar to get it, take SLab further right, and dig in on the “no referendum ever!” approach. As far as I can tell, the only reason SLab haven’t shot themselves in the foot recently is that they’ve had to pause to reload.

    I do hope I’m wrong, but…

  6. Scottish labour is free to choose any leader it wants as long as it is the one that the UK party wants. There must be many labour voters in Scotland who woke up the morning after the election with the sobering thought that their votes kept this despicable Tory government in power.

    • It is as free choice, tbh. Leonard will have his work cut out to beat the until-now anti-corbyn candidate. As far as Labour votes are concerned, in Scotland a Labour or SNP vote is an anti-Tory one. Labour folk who voted Tory tactically certainly helped the Tories. But I guess it’s true that huge numbers of SNP folk went across to the Tories, too.

      • Eric,do you think that the the natural right wingers who switched to the Tories at the election can be brought back on board for independence since their self reliance, personal responsibility, looking after your own rhetoric seems quite compatible with independence. A right wing self interest agenda is not coherent when its someone else’s self interest that sets the policies.

  7. Eric, what is Leonard’s position on Trident ? the GMB’s is particularly unprincipled and immoral,”jobs and wmd” Is he any better? I think he’s also a brexiteer.

    • GMB’s pro-Trident, so occupationally he’d have been in favour I guess. Unions understandably put jobs ahead of the bigger philosophies they might espouse. If here were a Brexiteer, he’ll be tapering that back a bit….

  8. You lost me at ‘Anas Sarwar is charming & smart’

  9. that whole argument fails because Scottish Labour would push the SNP to the right, not the left at all.


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