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Richard Leonard on Brexit, independence and Scottish Labour conference

Image credit: David Anderson

Richard Leonard on Brexit, independence and Scottish Labour conference

Holyrood sits down with Richard Leonard at the end of a difficult few days for the Scottish Labour leader.

Arriving at Summerlee Museum of Scottish Industrial Life on a bright Monday morning, Leonard’s weekend had been clouded by dour headlines following a grilling on the BBC’s Sunday Politics Scotland programme, leading to reports that a Labour government at Westminster would block a request for a second independence referendum.

GMB Scotland leader Gary Smith, meanwhile, had launched a blistering attack on his leadership on the same day, with the secretary at Leonard’s former employer – he spent more than 20 years working for the union – accusing him of having “nothing coherent or clear to say on the big issue of the day”. Kezia Dugdale then made a complaint to the party, just days later, accusing the leadership of censoring MEPs opposed to Brexit in the party’s conference handbook.

These were just the latest in a series of bad headlines, with the weeks prior seeing the Scottish media dominated by comments from former Labour leader Tony Blair, taken from an exclusive interview with Holyrood, claiming that Scottish Labour had lost support because it had moved to the left. Blair told Holyrood: “What is the obvious thing for the Labour Party to do in Scotland right now? The absolute obvious thing, it’s just sitting there, like a great big prize. You become the party that believes in the union, but with max devolution within it. You are pro Europe, so you fight Brexit.”

He added: “The question the Labour Party should ask itself in Scotland is how do you get beaten by the Tories? Why is that happening? It’s happening because it’s the politics that Ruth Davidson represents. That’s why it’s happening. You gave up the middle ground.”

This is not a description Leonard recognises, with the Central Scotland MSP rejecting the idea the Scottish Tories – tied to the consequences of welfare reform, austerity and hostile environment immigration policy – are sitting anywhere close to the centre-ground of politics.

Yet, regardless of whether the former PM is right in his analysis, there’s no denying Leonard is in a tricky position. In fact, things have been very difficult for the party ever since the 2014 independence referendum, with the subsequent general election seeing it lose 40 of its 41 MPs. And with reports suggesting another SNP push for independence is imminent, it’s unlikely Leonard’s determination to talk about domestic issues will be realised any time soon. So were media reports correct? Would Scottish Labour oppose granting a Section 30 order for a second independence referendum?

Leonard tells Holyrood: “Well, I’ve been asked the question, what Labour’s attitude is towards a second independence referendum, and my view is that there is no case for one. The manifesto we went into the 2017 general election with stated clearly that we would not support a second independence referendum.”

But while Labour’s opposition to independence is well known, there’s a distinction between saying the party is opposed to holding a referendum, and that it would not allow one to take place. There is, after all, a majority in the Scottish Parliament elected on a pro-independence basis. It seems quite difficult, democratically, to refuse one.

“Well, not really,” Leonard says. “Because the other thing that’s being put to me is that, at the 2021 election, if there is a majority returned for pro-independence parties, a future Labour government should accede to that. Which is based on all kinds of assumptions, one of which I am not prepared to contemplate, which is that pro-independence parties will win the 2021 election. I want the Labour Party to win the 2021 election.”

Pro-independence parties have a majority at present, though. If there is another Scottish Parliament election and pro-independence parties don’t get a majority then they will have lost that mandate. But a majority in the Scottish Parliament voted to hold a second independence referendum, after being elected on that basis.

“Yeah, but they also voted to abolish Primary One tests and they haven’t done that.”

But does Leonard accept there is a democratic mandate for a second independence referendum?

“No, because democracy comes from the people. What happened was that the Scottish Parliament voted in favour of a call for a second independence referendum in early 2017. All the parties then went out around the doorsteps of Scotland, campaigning in the local government elections, and the message coming back loud and clear was that the Scottish Parliament vote had created a whole new polarisation in Scottish society, and it wasn’t just that people who had voted No were incensed that someone was prepared to ask them again when they had just given them their decision. There was also a great deal of hostility from people who had voted Yes in 2014 but had then voted to leave in the 2016 referendum. They were saying, ‘hang on a minute’, the whole presupposition for this was that this was a route to remain in the EU, but we voted to leave, what about us? There was a fracturing of that previous Yes vote, and Nicola Sturgeon can answer for herself, but my empirical evidence is that on the doorsteps, it was pretty clear to me, and it must have been clear to the SNP and others, that there was no rise in support for a second referendum. Actually, the tide was rolling out. I think that’s why the decision to press that has not been made.”

The question of how to approach a second referendum will likely dominate chatter at the SNP conference at the end of May. But for Leonard, with his own party meeting in Dundee, the conference will offer a chance to start hammering together the policies which will form the basis of the Scottish Labour manifesto for the 2021 election. Leonard says he has always enjoyed conference, ever since his first one in the mid-1980s, describing it as “the parliament of the Scottish Labour Party”.

That manifesto, he explains, will be based around public ownership and anti-austerity policies – with greater levels of public intervention in railways, buses, housing and the energy sector – alongside ideas on what a redistribution of wealth and power could look like in a Scottish context.

“I am keen that we present, in the manifesto in 2021, the most radical social, economic and environmental programme that’s ever been put before people in Scotland in the devolution era,” he says.

But while Leonard is often painted as a pro-Corbyn voice in Scotland, that’s not a description he’s ever sought to cultivate. Leonard is probably better understood through his long history in the trade union movement than by allegiance to any political faction in the Labour Party, while the Scottish Labour leader’s admission that “there have been times when I have been unfashionable in the party”, is the closest he is willing to come to hitting back at critics such as Tony Blair.

And although the two do share similar worldviews, Leonard appears uncomfortable defending Corbyn’s approach to Brexit. In fact, watching him speak about rising homelessness, the human cost of welfare reform and the inhumanity of immigration policy, it’s hard to escape the feeling that, despite his efforts in campaigning for No and then Remain, this is a man trapped in two constitutional battles he doesn’t really want to fight.

Or, as he puts it: “I don’t see the real division being, in people’s lives, between Scotland and England. The real division is between the many and the few. The real division is between those who are scraping by on poverty pay versus those who are making vast amounts of money, or sitting on big piles of wealth. The Resolution Foundation calculated last year that there’s £1 trillion’s worth of wealth in Scotland today. The richest one per cent own more personal wealth than the whole of the poorest fifty per cent put together, so we live in a very unequal society and these are things we should be addressing.”

However, looming behind all this is the impending prospect of Brexit, alongside the reality that almost every single piece of analysis suggests the decision to leave the EU will make life harder for those already struggling to get by. The last few months have been filled by warnings over redundancies, of economic shocks, and of employers moving abroad. Yet Labour supports Brexit. Is that not difficult to reconcile? Does Leonard not feel uncomfortable defending the plan, given its effects on working people?

“Well, first of all, I campaigned, here, to remain,” he says. “One, because I thought the leave campaign was xenophobic, and secondly, because I thought that to leave an economic union that we’d been in for forty years would provide a major economic shock, and nothing has happened to make me change my mind on that, but you’ve also got to respect the result of the referendum. And the result of the referendum was to leave. That’s why Labour has been looking at ways of respecting the result of the referendum, but doing it in such a way that it causes the least damage economically. So I’m pretty clear that the point we’ve reached now is, unless there is a significant revision in the Brexit deal, then we will be campaigning for a second referendum, in which people will be asked, do they support a credible leave object, or do they support remain.”

Yet polls suggest Labour would find it easier to win votes in Scotland if it was unashamedly pro-remain. Isn’t this a missed opportunity for Labour?

Leonard rejects this. “It’s about being principled over the outcome of the referendum. In 2014, we had a referendum about whether to create a separate Scottish state or not, and the people voted decisively that we should not, that we should remain in the UK. In 2016, we then had a referendum which was UK-wide, the franchise was the UK because we voted in 2014 to stay part of that. The result, disappointingly for me, and against my better judgement, was to leave, so I think to respect the principle of the outcome of those referendums is the right thing to do.”

But while Leonard talks as though the party had no choice but to push for Brexit, it could have released a manifesto calling for a so-called People’s Vote, or to remain. Jeremy Corbyn chose to run on a leave platform. He could have done the opposite, and, if elected, he would have a mandate to remain. Why couldn’t Labour have done that in 2017?

Leonard says: “The snap election in 2017 was just after the referendum in 2016 and the prospect at that point was to put forward a vision for the kind of change people wanted to see. There was an understanding that the referendum had just taken place and we needed to respect the result. That’s still a dominant current inside Labour thinking.”

Still, it looks as though the approach is handing the SNP an easy win at a moment when the party is having all sorts of problems.

“Hang on a minute, they might be offering the chance to stay in the EU, but they want to pull us out the UK. The jobs tied up with our relationship with the UK through trade are four times as great as the jobs tied up with the EU.”

But that’s the SNP’s choice, while Labour could argue for staying in both the UK and the EU. In fact, listening to Leonard, it seems as though the reason he can’t do that is because of UK Labour’s stance. It feels like the UK party is making life unnecessarily difficult for Leonard.

He rejects this. “Well, I thank you for your sympathy, but I’m fine. It’s not like that. We’ll have a debate at conference where we will discuss Brexit. The following week, there will be the meaningful vote on the deal, and depending on how that goes, there will then be a vote on no deal or not, and depending on how that goes, there will be a vote on whether to extend Article 50 or not. In the course of that, Labour will once again aim to amend the Brexit agreement so it includes a permanent customs union, continued close alignment with the single market, protection of workers’ rights, consumer rights, environmental protection.”

Would that deal not see people in Scotland lose the right to free movement?

“But that would be subject to an agreement. The agreement could contain the continuation of free movement of people as it is now. Or it could contain a variant of that.”

Is it still possible to make that deal?

“Of course it is. It’s all dependent on the deal that forms the basis of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. What I’m saying is that the possibility remains for us to continue with freedom of movement of people. You see, one of the concerns I am always exercised by, there is lots of talk about freedom of trade and freedom of movement of capital and so on, but what about free movement of people? To me, that is extremely important, and one of the awful parts of this whole Brexit process has been the point at which Theresa May and her government were prepared to use EU citizens living here as some kind of pawn in their negotiations. That was terrible, they should have given an immediate and unequivocal commitment that people who live and work here would be able to stay here.”

He adds: “I would like to see the continuation of free movement of people. I think it has been culturally, socially and economically enriching for us.”

This seems to suggest a split from Corbyn’s position, though it is still unclear what sort of deal – if any – will win support in the Commons.

And while Leonard is obviously downbeat about the effect of leaving the EU, surely he must see some upsides. What benefits could a Labour Brexit bring?

“There have been times in the past when people relied on what I’d describe as the Brussels defence,” he says. “So, we’ve got to put the Calmac route out to tender because of Brussels. We can’t insert a requirement for people involved in the public procurement process to be Living Wage employers, because Brussels wouldn’t allow it. So I think one of the few benefits it will bring is that it will dispel that defence that people have often relied on.

“At the moment, there is such a thing under the Working Time Directive as a UK opt-out. So the maximum 48 hour a week can be overridden, either by a collective agreement with a trade union, or individuals, more likely, being put under some pressure by their employer to sign the opt-out clause, so I would like to see an end to the UK opt-out. In Scotland, over a quarter of a million workers are working in excess of 48 hours a week. Don’t get me wrong, one of the reasons for that is the low pay economy, and we need to address that as well, but I’d like to see a phasing out of that UK opt-out, so that no one is required to work more than 48 hours a week. That should be the start. Our long-term goal, as a society, with automation coming through, should be to have a much better work-life balance.”

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