Interview: Can Richard Leonard save Scottish Labour?

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 7 November 2017 in Inside Politics

Exclusive interview with Scottish Labour leadership contender Richard Leonard on his vision for the party

Richard Leonard - image credit: David Anderson

Richard Leonard is wearing a vintage Katharine Hamnett designer suit which he tells me he picked up at a knock-down price from TK Maxx. The bargain basement suit provides for a neat analogy about the leadership candidate who has been described as an ethical socialist, grounded in the party’s history and with a keen eye on the redistribution of wealth and power.

Hamnett was, of course, the outspoken, left-wing, ethical fashion designer of the 1980s who famously confronted Margaret Thatcher during a reception at No 10 wearing an oversized T-shirt emblazoned with the words ‘58% don’t want Pershing’. She may have got the genre of nuclear missiles a little off piste, but her Downing Street protest about US cruise missiles being stored at Greenham Common captured the front pages.

The year was 1984. Leonard was graduating from Stirling University at the end of a four-year degree in economics and politics and a more practical and comprehensive education in grassroots activism.


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The 18-year-old Leonard had travelled north in 1980 from his home in Yorkshire to study at Stirling, principally because he was attracted to the idea of continual assessment rather than the hothouse, exam-based culture he had perhaps experienced at Pocklington, the prestigious private school near York, which he had won a scholarship to attend.

It was a time of great political upheaval and there was no shortage of causes for the young Leonard to get involved in. Thatcher was a year into her long reign in power and Ronald Reagan was the gung-ho US president. There were student marches in support of the miners’ strikes, protests against savage education cuts and, of course, there was the thorny question over the installation of those nuclear warheads at Greenham Common. Marches, meetings and mass demonstrations were all part of student life for Leonard and played out to the backing track of ‘Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, out, out, out’.

And Leonard had witnessed the harsh consequences of Thatcher’s de-industrialisation strategy first-hand as his father, a tailor, lost his job as the factories and mills, where he had worked all his life, were closed.

Leonard says his father, who had worked in the same firm since leaving school, was part of a generation that in 1980 “was hung out to dry”. The year he started at university in Scotland, Leonard’s parents and 10-year-old sister had to sell the family home, up sticks and move to the south of England for work.

This had a profound effect on Leonard and he acutely describes that “sense of powerlessness” which broke a generation. He says that while his parents weren’t political and were never members of the Labour Party, they were “Labour people”. He describes his late father, who was a member of the Tailor and Garment Workers Union, as “a kind of Harold Wilson type – a more traditional Labour supporter” and his mother, who now lives back in Yorkshire, still votes Labour. 

Leonard’s early political awakening came while he was still at school in the ‘70s – when he started reading Tony Benn’s musings on socialism and democracy in books bought from the local Woolworths in Malton. He describes them as being “very influential” on him. Consequently, he joined the Labour club at Stirling University as soon as he arrived on campus and was immediately thrown into the conflict of the Militant Tendency that had infiltrated it at the time. He says that his first forays into the club were “lessons in intimidation” as Militant members would line the walls, holding up cheques saying, ‘I’ve donated £10 from my student grant to the Militant fighting fund, how much are you giving?’ He describes the atmosphere as cult-like but it made him and others determined to stick it out because they were, he says, “Labour people”. Without oxygen, Militant soon drifted away.

These were the years that overtly politicised Leonard and he was to go on to be elected president of the student union at Stirling University in 1984. He followed in the footsteps of fellow student Jack McConnell, who had initially been a member of a more unaligned and loose coalition of those on the left at Stirling, but later joined Leonard in the Labour club when there was, surprise, surprise, a split in the ironically named ‘Left Alliance’.

Leonard talks about the past, present and future of the Labour Party with a passion steeped in the history of the movement and informed by the ideological arguments of figures like Keir Hardie, who is a personal hero. He can sometimes sound like a throwback when he talks of the class struggle and the powerlessness of workers, but he says his core principles and politics have not changed to suit what’s in fashion. And for him, it is personal.

“To me, Labour values are about a set of values which are around equality being important,” he tells me. “There’s a founding value about changing the way the economy works and not believing that you can really manifest the changes without changing the economic relations and so too the power relations. I suppose it is also recognising the value of solidarity, with a small ‘s’, that was around most obviously during the miners’ strike in ‘84/’85, which was the year I was president of the students’ association. That was a really brutal time in politics and one where we had all the apparatus of the state lined up against a group of organised workers, against their trade union. It felt like that was a really important defining point in our history and so it proved to be.

“However, we have failed to bring about anything that in a way resembles any kind of industrial democracy. People at work are still largely in a compact, which is a master/servant relationship, and we haven’t fundamentally tilted the balance. That’s the agenda that brought me to the Labour Party and the one that’s resurfacing now with talk about a redistribution, not just of wealth, but of power, and I think one of the reasons why people are hungry for change and are looking for a hopeful message is that for a lot of people, in their lives, in the community, in the workplace, there’s a real feeling of powerlessness.”

Leonard has spent almost four decades spreading the Labour message as a member, an activist and as a trade unionist. After 25 years as a trade union organiser, he stood for the Scottish Parliament in 2011 believing that real, long-lasting change could only be achieved politically. He failed to get elected then but entered the Scottish Parliament as a list MSP in 2016. And following Kezia Dugdale’s resignation as leader in August, is now, like his fellow Stirling University alumnus Jack McConnell before him, making a bid to lead the Scottish Labour Party and to become the First Minister of Scotland. He is standing in this latest leadership contest – the sixth in a decade – against Anas Sarwar who, despite having been an MP and both the deputy leader of the party and interim leader, following the resignation of Johann Lamont in 2014 pitches himself as both the anti-establishment candidate and the one for unity.

Leonard says that is “an interesting way to self-define.”

Sarwar is fighting a slick campaign – he has a former political editor of the Daily Mail running his bid for the top. And in contrast, Leonard’s leadership campaign can appear a bit Heath Robinson. 

Leonard had to be persuaded to join Twitter and is still to personally master the fine art of persuasion in 140 characters. There are the grainy social media pics and the Facebook Live streaming of speeches where the camera focused on Leonard has been, at times, upside down. And there was, of course, the memorable email from one of his team that accused Jackie Baillie of talking ‘pish’. But the slightly shambolic nature of it all has lent Leonard an authenticity that is, following Corbyn’s rise to popularity, de rigeur. And in a contest that has so far been a bruising affair, with claims of plots, counter plots, vote rigging, racism and even a QC’s opinion, Leonard’s less polished, less confrontational, approach has lent him a certain whiff of the underdog which actually contrasts sharply with the mass support he already has from the CLPs and the trade unions. He is currently viewed as the front-runner.

His supporters talk of his political consistency and of his intellectual heft – he certainly doesn’t speak in soundbites and is clearly a thinker and a reader. He would also be the first trade unionist to become Scottish leader which, he says, would bring a different experience.

Leonard’s politics are underlined by his commitment to workers’ rights. He is a member of the William Morris Society. And while Morris might be best known for his wallpaper prints and the patterns that adorned 1970s sofas, for socialists connected to their history, he was a philosopher and idealist, dubbed the Marxist dreamer. In his seminal novel News from Nowhere, which Leonard cites, along with A Scots Quair and The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropist, as one of the most inspiring novels ever written, he recounts the story of an activist who falls into a deep sleep following an acrimonious political meeting and awakes in a socialist future where money, wage slavery and marriage have been abolished. And parliament has become a storage unit for horse manure.

It is this kind of wide-eyed idealism that has been associated with Corbyn, but Leonard is quick to dismiss claims that he is the Corbyn candidate, saying that he has been around too long, and is “too long in the tooth”, to be a so-called Corbynista. But does it pitch him as the far-left candidate in contrast to Sarwar, a moderate who has a ‘flexibility’ in his views?

“I’ve never been on the far-left in politics,” he says. “My politics are a common-sense politics around a mixed economy, about trying to provide jobs for people, about trying to get a decent level of public services for people, and it’s just about having, I suppose, a sense of an ethical socialism that’s around what kind of society is it that we’re presiding over. Some of the things that we’re presiding over now are just not right, whether it’s increasing child poverty, the growing inequality gap or just a sense of what’s right and what’s wrong, and sometimes in politics, it really is about that and not about what’s left and right, it’s about right and wrong.

“I’ve got my values and my principles and I will apply those to situations that I find. So, I’m not on a mission to drive Scotland or the Labour Party to the left. As I said, I’ve worked right across the Labour Party for the last 35 years and I’m not about to change that now. I’ll continue to work right across the Labour Party, but my own firm view is that the Labour Party will only be electable again in Scotland if we seem to have a distinctive, confident Labour message that people recognise as a Labour message.”

I tell Leonard that every Labour Party leader in Scotland that I have interviewed over the last twelve years has told me that they were on a mission to try to explain what the party stood for. The ballot box would say they have failed.

“I think there are times in the past where people have become confused about what we stand for and we haven’t been clear enough,” he says. “All the evidence shows that people are looking for principles in politics, and while some people argue that idealism is a luxury in politics, I don’t think it is. I think people are looking for a bit of idealism and a bit of hope and I think they will vote for it.”

Given his longevity in the higher echelons of the party machinery, was he, I wonder, rather rhetorically, just an observer of things going wrong?

“Let’s say I felt in a minority for part of that time,” he says. “I didn’t ever feel like I was an observer, and actually, I was privileged, although some people would say otherwise, to be the longest serving member of the Labour Party Scottish executive. I was on there between 1997 right up until I was elected, so that was 19 years, nearly 20 years.”

So, why wasn’t he using his famous trade union negotiating skills to get his voice heard?

He laughs: “Well, let’s just say that my voice wasn’t always listened to. There was also a certain hegemony around leadership positions and the Labour Party, on the whole, displays a lot of loyalty to leaders and so for a lot of that time, I guess, people fell in behind the prevailing orthodoxy, even if some people were questioning if that was necessarily how we should represent ourselves, if that was necessarily where we should be politically and if that was necessarily what we should look like. For example, part of my experience in that arena was fighting for things like all-women shortlists and I make the point regularly now that anybody who thinks those battles about women’s representation are won should sit where I’ve sat for the last 20 years. Every time there is a discussion about women’s representation, there are always voices questioning whether there’s a need for positive action, whether there’s a need for quotas, whether there’s a need for us to do anything, so there’s a requirement to reaffirm some of those reasons and those principles on a regular basis. There is always work to be done.

“But for me, politically, there’s been a constant and yes, that’s meant I’ve sometimes been off message. I remember giving a speech at the Scottish Labour Party conference when Iain Gray was the leader and I’d sent him a note to say I thought his leader’s speech was great, which it was, really powerful, and he’d sent a reply saying I thought yours was good too, if slightly off message. So I just accept that, but in terms of Labour thinking, I’ve been the one that has remained constant. The interesting thing that’s happening now is that you’ve got this whole new younger generation of people who are absolutely drawn back to a Labour Party with a kind of more radical agenda, led by Jeremy Corbyn at a UK level, and there’s a hunger for that more radical edge in Scotland as well.

“I think that the era we’re living in at the moment is an era of great disappointment that the Scottish Parliament hasn’t lived up to those aspirations and dreams that people had either a) of finding Scottish solutions to Scottish problems or b) as a bulwark against a hostile Conservative government which is a pro-austerity government, which wants to roll back the state, which wants to punish the poorest, which wants to go through social security reforms in such a way that it removes people from the safety net of support. I mean, doing awful things.”

Given it was the Thatcher years that brought him into politics, I wonder how he views the rise in support for the Tories in Scotland under Ruth Davidson.

“Well, that’s a moving dynamic, isn’t it? That’s around questions like the constitutional question in Scotland and who seemed to be the best defender of the Union, so I think they benefited from some of that and I think there is also some amnesia amongst people who lived through it or are too young to remember those awful days we spoke about in the beginning under Thatcher.”

On the constitutional question, I wonder if he had ever been tempted to intellectualise over whether independence might be the vehicle to allow him to fulfil Labour’s ambitions?

“No, because my fundamental problem with independence is not that I can’t see that political independence, the creation of a separate state in Scotland, is eminently possible, but I think it’s whether it would move us to a better place or a worse place?

“For me, it’s all about the economics, the underlying economics, and I don’t mean the fiscal economics, the GERS reports and all that, I mean it’s that question about where does power lie in the economy and I think, even on the prospectus of the white paper, it was clear that with lots of decisions, including monetary policy but also corporate policy, there didn’t appear to be any recognition that that mattered. My view is, if you’re going to see a radical redistribution of power, you must intervene at the level where that power is exercised.

“I understood why people saw independence as a message of hope, because it gets us out of some of the fixes that poverty and the inequality that people see as endemic, but I don’t think the solution lies in independence. I think the solution lies in significant economic and political reform at a UK level.”

Which begs the question, if, economically, the argument could be made for independence, could he be persuaded?

“Well,” he laughs. “I’m relying on my head at the moment and that’ll do me.”

If elected, Leonard would be the ninth leader of Scottish Labour since devolution. Which leader does he most identify with?

“Interesting question. I have thought about the fact that I am the only leader or potential leader who’s got that strong trade union background. People have come through Westminster or they’ve come through the party, maybe, so my experience is quite different from that. I would probably identify more with important reforms than with people, like land reform, which has been a landmark thing for the parliament. I think of free personal care for the elderly under Henry McLeish’s time and I think of Jack’s smoking ban. These are things that have been done and that are still around because of their enduring qualities which have [had their] foundations laid by Labour. Do I especially identify with anybody in particular? Probably not…oh, except Henry McLeish, who was on Leeds United’s books for a few weeks, so if pushed, probably him!

“Anyone I particularly don’t identify with? No.”

What about Jim Murphy?

“Oh, I forgot about Jim…

“Jim’s a classic example of somebody for whom I campaigned in his Eastwood constituency. Jim was a member of the GMB trade union and I worked for the GMB trade union. We need to remind ourselves that for much of that period, since his election in ‘97 that was a marginal seat, it was a key seat, so I’ve knocked lots of doors for Jim Murphy.”

But did he vote for him to be leader?

“No…”

That’s interesting?

“No, my view is that once somebody is elected as a Labour leader, or a candidate even, you get behind them 100 per cent. Anybody who has got a different outlook of the direction of the Labour Party to me, I accept. The Labour Party has always been a synthesis of different ideas and different traditions and different strands and a gradualist approach vs a more direct approach. There will always be some of those tensions and tactical tensions and that’s just my entire experience of the Labour Party. So when the Labour Party selected a candidate in Stirling in 1997, for instance, [Anne McGuire, who has since endorsed Sarwar for leader] and whether I voted for them or not, when I was asked to be their parliamentary election agent, I did it because that was a key seat – Michael Forsyth was the MP – and we needed to get a Labour government elected in 1997, desperately. So of course, every campaign since when Michael Foot was the leader, I’ve been out there knocking doors, delivering leaflets, working morning, noon and night for the Labour Party, no matter who the candidate. It’s about the party.”

Have there been times when he couldn’t back the party leadership?

“Clearly the invasion of Iraq,” he says without hesitation. “I was the chair of the Scottish Labour Party at the very point when Iraq was being invaded and I remember being in Dundee on the Thursday night and switching on the TV on the Friday morning and Baghdad was in flames. It was awful. The week before I’d been marching the streets against the war. There are big issues like that, but on the whole, I know that while Labour governments may well do some wrong things and things I disagree with, they will still deliver in a way that nobody else will deliver for working people.”

But first, whoever wins this leadership contest, arguably the most vitriolic the party in Scotland has seen, will have to bring all sides together. How?

“My view is that for all those people in all those communities that need a Labour government in Scotland, we need to bury our differences and pull together and have a unity of purpose and get on with it. As I said earlier, if anybody thinks that in third place we’ve got the luxury of turning in on ourselves, then they’ve got a completely false perspective of where the Labour Party in Scotland is right now.”

Would Anas have a place on his front bench?

“I’ve never promised a job to anybody in advance of any appointment…”

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