Richard Leonard: Scotland has a cooperative heritage
Exclusive: Richard Leonard tells Holyrood how Tony Blair has got it all wrong and why Scotland should become “The Mondragón of the North”
“Tony Blair has got a few things wrong in his life, hasn’t he?”
Richard Leonard muses upon the former prime minister’s latest pronouncement that a bespoke relationship with the European Union is “literally not going to happen” and gets to the very core of the current Labour psyche.
It’s now five months since the Central Scotland MSP won the divisive leadership contest against Anas Sarwar, and most politicos are now familiar with his background and bit-too-shouty Yorkshire bark at FMQs.
The Scottish Labour conference is his chance to firmly put his stamp on a party that still does not quite know itself or the direction that it is heading.
Leonard is already facing a mini rebellion over Brexit at his first party conference, with his predecessor Kezia Dugdale, former shadow Scottish secretary Ian Murray and MEP Catherine Stihler banging the drum to keep Britain in the European single market.
Leonard backs Corbyn’s plan for “tariff-free access to the single market in a customs union” without actually being in the single market and customs union but insists he’s “quite relaxed” about the internal debate raging within the party.
Many observers – including Blair – have unfavourably likened Corbyn’s bespoke Brexit plan to the ‘have cake and eat it’ approach of the Tories.
“Tony Blair is entitled to his opinion,” Leonard tells Holyrood.
“I don’t think he represents the mainstream opinion inside the Labour Party, let alone mainstream opinion inside the country, and I think he is being unduly pessimistic.
“I think that there is a compelling case to forge a future which acknowledges the result of the referendum in 2016 – which was to leave the EU – but to do so in way that we retain a high level of collaboration, competition and close working with the EU.
“We’re not going to be a member of the EU so we can’t continue with our existing membership of the customs union as it is currently constituted.”
Leonard insists that there is no such thing as an “off the peg” Brexit deal, coming perilously close to Theresa May’s recent pronouncement that “every trade arrangement is cherry-picking”.
“Norway has got a bespoke arrangement around the Common Fisheries Policy which they are not part of,” says Leonard.
“There are different permutations that different members of the EEA have got and I think that if we are looking towards having a relationship with the single market and customs union – which I think we need to do – we need to look at what that will look like and how that can be constructed in a way that will be mutually advantageous.
“I don’t think that necessarily means taking Norway off the shelf. I think it means looking at what is going to suit our economic interests and needs.
“I would like to see an economy where there is much less reliance on external foreign investment, and a much stronger burgeoning resilient indigenous industrial base.
"I would like to see public services at a level where they run along the principles of universality, the comprehensive principle of free at the point of need and use.
“And I suppose I would like to see a country at ease with itself, a country where there is much less poverty and where inequality is radically reduced.”
He added: “I don’t think we’ve had sufficient support for the development of indigenous business.
“We’ve gone through eras in my lifetime when deindustrialisation was a price that people thought was a price worth paying. Well, I don’t think it is.
“I don’t buy this model that still prevails – and you see it in some of the critique of the single market – which is that there is a law of comparative advantage which says that we can just bail out of manufacturing, concentrate on services, sell our services and everybody is happy.
“The best and most successful economies are the ones that are mixed, both in terms of ownership and the balance between manufacturing and services.
“I think we have got out of balance. Things in the Scottish economy are out of kilter, and one of the things that I would like to see is investment to try to redevelop the manufacturing base.
“The classic example is BiFab, where we’ve got, hanging by a thread, three extremely important national assets which are those three yards, the deep water port in the Western Isles and the two fabrication yards in Fife.
“There has got to be a more coherent, cogent economic strategy which recognises that if we are going to put public money in, there needs to be a relationship between the jobs and the manufacturing infrastructure that we need.”
Leonard says he is a “democratic socialist” who advocates “a more active role for the state”, and he rejects the right-wing notion that state intervention could drag Britain towards Soviet-style inefficiency and autocracy.
“One of the failings of the old Soviet-style system is that there wasn’t democracy in the system,” he says.
“Social democracy hasn’t achieved all that was expected of it and old-style Soviet communism didn’t achieve what was expected of it because neither of them properly represents democratic socialism.
“It’s about how you run an economy for the people rather than simply people serving the economy and other people’s imperatives.”
Corbyn is still trying to distance himself from the old Soviet system, with questions over a meeting with Czech spy Ján Sarkocy in the 1980s fuelling right-wing suspicions that he is a communist sympathiser.
Corbyn has dismissed these allegations as “ridiculous smears”, and Leonard insists they are “a sign of desperation on the part of some marginal parts of the press”.
“The idea of red smears as being a successful strategy for undermining a Labour leader have, down the years, been shown to be rather tenuous,” he says.
“I don’t know all the ins and outs of this particular Czech spy that Jeremy is meant to have met with.
“I don’t know whether this Czech person has met with lots of other people as well, and it just so happens that he has met with Jeremy at one point, and he’s now the leader of the Labour Party and a lot of people are making some very tenuous and mischievous connections which are unwarranted.”
Leonard clearly rejects Soviet communism and remains lukewarm about social democracy and the macroeconomics of the European Union, but he is a keen admirer of European sub-regions that he believes hold the key to Scotland’s future success.
His obscure economic policy to make Scotland “The Mondragon of the North” will undoubtedly leave most voters scratching their heads.
Never heard of Mondragón? It’s the birthplace of the biggest corporation in the Basque Country, the world’s largest workers’ cooperative where decision making is democratic, job security is promoted, and the highest paid earns no more than nine times the lowest – which gives you an idea why it’s so appealing to Red Len.
While Spain’s economy is in the toilet with just about the highest unemployment rate in Europe, Leonard insists the town of Mondragón is thriving.
“The Mondragón economy is doing very well because it’s not as subject to the external economic shocks that other parts of the Spanish economy are,” says Leonard.
“It’s an economy which is run by and for the labour force so it doesn’t go as a first resort to redundancy to reduce costs, and therefore the unemployment rates and the redundancy rates are virtually negligible, even over the course of the fairly turbulent times that the Spanish economy has faced.”
Leonard also admires the Emilia-Romagna region in northern Italy, where cooperatives produce a third of the local GDP.
“There are significant parts of the Emilia-Romagna economy which are more resilient because they are in some form of either producer or consumer cooperative ownership,” he says.
Both of these regions are just about keeping a lid on some of the fiercest nationalist movements in the world.
The once feared Basque separatist terrorist group ETA disarmed in 2011, but re-emerged last year to express its outrage at Madrid’s suppression of the independence referendum in neighbouring Catalonia.
An opinion poll conducted in the Basque Country after the Catalonia referendum suggests just 22 per cent now back Basque independence, perhaps indicating that they want a timeout from constitutional wrangling.
Emilia-Romagna is at the heart of Italy’s ‘Red Belt’, which has a cultural tradition based on the values of labour, equality and solidarity, but there has been a shift in recent years to the anti-immigrant policies of Lega Nord (Northern League) which advocates independence for the northern region it calls Padania.
It has stopped actively campaigning for separation and rebranded as simply Lega, focussing its immediate attention on more autonomy for the north and a say in wider Italian politics. Lega has a realistic prospct of a leading role in Italy’s national government following the rise of the far right the election on March 5. Its share of the vote rose from 2.6 per cent to 19 per cent in Emilia-Romagna.
While Leonard is a committed British unionist, he acknowledges that national borders are products of history and not sacred boundaries, a rare perspective in an age when British identity stops at Calais, Scottish nationalism stops at Berwick and the Northern Ireland border threatens to derail the best laid plans of the Brexiteers.
“Italy itself is a country that was created from its constituent parts not that long ago,” he says.
“Italy is a unified state made up of smaller states down the years, and Garibaldi had a key part to play in that…but I don’t think northern Italy as a whole is nationalistic.
“There are examples that we can draw from Europe which we can legitimately say, ‘how can we get more like that here?’.
“The heritage of Scotland is a cooperative heritage. This is where Robert Owen set up New Lanark. This is where the Fenwick Weavers first established a cooperative way of working in Ayrshire in the 18th century.
“This is part of our lost tradition that I think we should reignite. I would like to see a very different Scottish economy. I would like to see an economy where there is a flourishing cooperative sector.”
While Lega Nord is embracing the racist sympathies of a minority of Italians, Labour is trying to distance itself from its own race rows in Holyrood and Westminster.
Labour councillor Davie McLachlan has been suspended amid allegations he told Leonard’s leadership opponent Anas Sarwar that Labour is “not ready for a brown, Muslim Paki”.
Scottish Labour MP Hugh Gaffney has also been disciplined for a speech in which he joked about “eating a chinky” takeaway and said Scottish bard Robert Burns wasn’t “bent”.
Leonard insists there is no inconsistency between McLachlan’s suspension and Gaffney’s more light-tough disciplinary action.
“Davie McLachlan is suspended because it wouldn’t be right for him to be the leader of South Lanarkshire Labour group while he is being investigated for this serious allegation,” says Leonard.
“To protect him, to protect the Labour Party, to protect all the other members of that Labour group, the right thing to do was to suspend him from his membership of the Labour Party at the moment. That will be reviewed at the end of the investigation process.
“Hugh Gaffney didn’t contest the allegation against him. He admitted straight away that he said those two things that caused deep offence to me, and also caused deep offence to people in those communities against whom he made remarks that were, in my view, completely unacceptable.
“He accepted it, he was given an immediate warning – a reprimand as we call it in our vocabulary – and he said that he would make reparations with the communities that he offended, and he also said that he would undergo equality and diversity training.
“That is why the actions have been taken against one individual and another individual, so I don’t see that as being inconsistent.”
Tom Watson, deputy leader of the UK Labour Party, has also been urged to hand back a £500,000 donation he received from millionaire Max Mosley – the former Formula One boss whose father Oswald led the British Union of Fascists before World War II – after his name was found on racist pamphlets distributed in the 1960s.
Leonard said: “I’m not going to comment on Tom Watson’s situation because I don’t know the ins and outs of it, but I am much more comfortable with a Labour Party that relies on small donations from a lot of people than relies on big donors providing the resources that go into our campaigns.”
As Scottish Labour heads to its party conference in Dundee, its first annual accounts of the post-Corbyn era show a slight upturn in the party’s fortunes following the post-Better Together slump.
A large proportion of the money has come from trade unions and individual donations, suggesting Leonard may once again be on to something.
“There is an old Labour slogan, ‘the workers’ pennies can beat the boss’s millions’,” he says.
“That is very true. I will stick to that.”
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