Comment: There have been few leaders as unlucky as Richard Leonard
It is not easy being a party leader. The leader reaps all the credit when all goes well and gets the blame when all goes wrong.
Leaders are only really tested when the party is up against it. That is also when enemies – and as Churchill said, ‘The opposition occupies the benches in front of you, but the enemy sits behind you’ – are most ferocious.
In his prize-winning biography of Clement Attlee, John Bew drew on John Cruddas’s distinction between the orthodox and unorthodox Attlee. The former was the ‘decent man but a dry and rather colourless functionary: a good chairman, reliable colleague and capable administrator’ and the latter was a ‘more romantic figure: passionate, patriotic, ethical, and visionary’.
Today’s political leaders are expected to combine orthodox and unorthodox traits. And in the case of a Scottish leader, that patriotism requires to be emphatically Scottish. That’s a tall order and we need to recognise this and before we condemn and criticise, we might want to reflect on what this says about the state of politics.
A factor in success is inheritance, including inherited trajectory. A party on a steep downward path is not likely to be turned around as easily as one that has bottomed out.
Similarly, the leader inheriting a party on the way up will claim credit for the predecessor’s efforts. Luck plays a bigger part that is generally conceded.
There have been few luckier leaders than Nicola Sturgeon and few more unlucky than Richard Leonard. He inherited a deeply divided party, but then when was Labour not divided?
Scottish Labour was still bruised and embittered, struggling to come to terms with losing its position as Scotland’s largest party. These ingredients have created a form of internal Mutual Assured Destruction with each faction taking turns in office and seeking to undermine whoever was leader.
This does not excuse poor leadership, only that measuring success should take account of inheritance, context and expectations. But Mr Leonard was an unlikely leader. As one Labour figure put it, he could walk across wet sand without leaving an impression.
His personal attributes made him a good and loyal friend, a quiet and modest man, an honourable person but self-belief, assertiveness and personal ambition are expected of party leaders – traits that would grate and irritate in normal life.
Nobody was ever likely to say of him, ‘He’s a bastard but he’s our bastard’ as might be said of many party leaders. Even some of his greatest supporters privately concede that he was a decent man who did not cope well with leadership.
There is no doubt that Labour’s Scottish leaders since 2007 have had it tough. Relatively easy access to resources, favourable media coverage and a far larger party electoral base made life much easier for Scottish Labour leaders in the previous half century.
The SNP electoral threat lapped around Labour’s ankles, occasionally rising higher and threatening to engulf Labour as in the 1970s, but the SNP only became a serious threat after devolution.
Labour’s problems today lay in failures in the early years of devolution. It was not even New Labour. The ‘do less, better’ attitude encapsulated an astoundingly conservative and complacent attitude. A progressive party needs to offer much more. Little wonder the SNP’s optimism allowed it to replace Labour.
A large part of Scottish Labour has not managed to emerge from the long shadow cast by that 2007 election defeat. The relationship between the SNP and Labour has been inverted. During its long years challenging Labour, the SNP defined itself in contradistinction to Labour. This often meant mimicking Labour, other times trying to be more Labour than Labour. Labour dominated and blinded SNP thinking. Other than on the constitution, the SNP was incapable of forging an independent identity until many years into devolution.
Scottish Labour now has struggles to define itself independently, blinded by opposition to the SNP. Its distinguishing characteristic, as seen by the electorate, is that it opposes independence.
It has failed to convey a clear and coherent alternative, failed to be seen to offer hope or vision. This cannot be laid entirely at Richard Leonard’s door but is a problem the party needs to own and address. But is a problem the party can address.
Harold Wilson told the 1962 Labour conference: ‘The Labour party is a moral crusade or it is nothing.’ That remains true. A couple of years later at the party conference he referred to the promise of the ‘white heat of technology’, conveying excitement, relevance, and hope. It proved a false dawn in many respects, but it brought Labour electoral success. Can Scottish Labour convey that today?
Of course, so long as the agenda is dominated by the constitution, Labour will be expected to take sides in a polarised debate. It is damned whichever side it takes. But must it take sides?
There is a vast array of constitutional possibilities between independence and the status quo. Advocates at either end of the constitutional spectrum seek to limit choice. But in emphasising the gulf between these constitutional options, Scottish and British nationalists acknowledge the large open space that Labour might inhabit.
But more than this, Labour needs to articulate a constitutional preference as an article of faith, not in response to pressure. It has always been most comfortable when offering social and economic hope.
Aligning an alternative to Scottish and British nationalism that combines a new constitutional order that offers the chance to create a better society and fair economy should not be beyond Labour.
Welsh Labour may have shown the way when it last week launched proposals for radical federalism. Constitutional change need not be an end in itself, as the SNP and Tories view it, but a means to an end. But any such policy will require elaboration to be taken seriously. The time for slogans is over. Indeed, offering substance to any proposal would distinguish Labour from the other parties.
The next Scottish Labour leader will be judged on the outcome of the Holyrood elections though if fairness entered into it, which is unlikely, the new leader’s inheritance will be taken into account.
Evidence of Attlee’s unorthodox attributes will be essential to pull Labour ahead of the Tories to become Scotland’s second party. That would be an important achievement. If Labour prevents the SNP from having an overall majority that would be a major achievement.
There is nothing inevitable about a party’s continued existence. But equally, there is nothing inevitable about its decline.