Scottish Labour desperately needs a reboot
The Scottish Labour Party couldn’t have picked a better day for its opposition debate in support of the ‘Ready for Renewal’ campaign. Still reeling from the devastating results in the European election which saw it pushed into fifth place in the polls behind the SNP, the Brexit Party, the Lib Dems and the Tories, never was there a more needed exploration of how the party should reboot.
But while the subject matter and the accompanying hashtag – #renewal – was the right one, the debate was not unfortunately on the future of the Labour Party, but on the importance of the renewables industry and for a call for more investment in the mothballed BiFab yards in Fife.
And while the gravity of the issue to the local economy was a principled one, it felt at times anachronistic to be talking of past industrial glories when the elephant in the room was less the future employment of a skilled workforce, and more the immediate job prospects for the party leader, Richard Leonard.
The European election results were a disaster for Labour UK-wide but even worse in Scotland and within the space of 48-hours, not only was Leonard wrestling with the fall-out over the Labour share of the vote in Scotland, having dropped to single figures, but he was also grappling with the departure of two high-profile, frontbench MSPs, including his closest ally, Neil Findlay, who also announced he was quitting politics altogether at the next election.
If it couldn’t get any worse, Labour politicians, past and present, weighed in with their own tuppence-worth. A former party chairman said the party was on “life-support” and blamed the dismal showing in the polls on the UK leader’s “tin-eared” approach on Brexit, saying that the confused message about whether it was a party of Leave or Remain had doubled down on its impact in Remain-strong Scotland and that Leonard had failed to use his party’s hard-won autonomy to choose a different path.
Sitting MSP, transport spokesperson and former General Secretary of the party Colin Smyth, said in a television interview that Leonard – his boss – was seen to be too close to Corbyn and needed to “start to become his own man”.
And in response to a Labour source that said on social media that they would take no lessons from those whose decisions and policies had previously taken the party to third place in Scotland, former Scottish leader, Kezia Dugdale, tweeted: “You’re 5th, mate.”
Dugdale and Findlay represent two wings of the party and in a parliamentary group that is now just 23 MSPs-strong, there is little unity. And with more than a third of those MSPs having either been leader or deputy leader at some point in their parliamentary career, they do not appear to have found solidarity through adversity – more antipathy for each other’s circumstance. Dugdale and Findlay may share the same constituency office but haven’t spoken a word for 18 months.
There are two tribes in Scottish Labour and Leonard’s failing has perhaps been in not coming down hard enough on dissent. From day one, his position was undermined by Dugdale’s departure to the jungle in I’m a Celebrity and he was further frustrated by allies on the more moderate wing who made group meetings toxic, often tearful, affairs.
Leonard is the ninth leader of Scottish Labour in 20 years and all, to a greater and lesser extent, are culpable for the fall and latterly more accelerated decline in support for the party.
And while Jack McConnell only lost the 2007 election by one seat, Iain Gray by significantly more, it was Jim Murphy who was leader in 2015 when the SNP took 56 of the 59 seats available, including Murphy’s, and left Labour with just one.
Which makes it all the more extraordinary that Murphy was rumoured to have been behind failed attempts to table a motion on a vote of no confidence in Leonard’s leadership at his local CLP meeting last week.
This came on the same day that there were two emergency ‘make or break’ meetings of Labour MSPs at Holyrood. And while the anticipated coup never came, there were said to be extraordinary scenes, with one meeting ending with Daniel Johnson resigning as justice spokesperson and being escorted out of the meeting room under the protective arm of former party leadership contender, Anas Sarwar.
Leonard is a decent, principled and thoughtful man. But it is incredible that after a career in the trade union movement, he has approached the job of leader with a blind naivety.
When he eventually sacked Sarwar and Jackie Baillie from his shadow cabinet, he was criticised for having poor judgement rather than for coming down strong on comrades who were effectively undermining him. He now needs to assert his authority and be clear about his vision for Scotland.
Labour has been caught in a decade-long – arguably much longer – maelstrom of constitutional arguments that it has not seen as part of its core cause and as a result, has been slow to recognise that it needed to be part of that fight.
It is now stepping up the ante on its work around a constitutional offering and that will have, at its heart, the principle of where power should lie. It is expected to recommend the devolution of any powers that would allow for local solutions, particularly around employment and it will offer a third way in the hope that it could be revolutionary.
The Labour Party used to frame its ideological arguments around its opposition to the Tories but it is in danger of doing Ruth Davidson’s work for her. A Brexit based on lies driven by a Conservative Party fighting for its survival, that’s where Labour should be taking the fight, not fighting with each other.