Lesley Riddoch: New Labour leader will need to be bold and brave to succeed

One thing about Kezia Dugdale is indisputable '“ she has an uncanny sense of timing.

Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

News of her decision to stand down as Scottish Labour leader knocked the Queensferry Crossing opening off the top spot in September. And this weekend her bizarre decision to head to Australia for a place on I’m a Celebrity completely overshadowed the election of her successor.

Whether this was deliberate or not is hard to say.

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But it speaks volumes that a woman once pivotal to Scottish Labour can so recklessly cast aside her future in that party - and even more significant that her replacement can so easily be airbrushed from the front pages.

Of course, the media is having some fun at Labour’s expense – eight leaders since devolution and counting – but it’s more than that too. Nobody really knows much about Richard Leonard and since he declined TV interviews yesterday the public is not much the wiser.

But what we do know suggests the new Scottish Labour leader may face a few political placement problems. Leonard – a self-declared socialist – nonetheless spent decades within the GMB union, which is pro trident, pro fracking, supports the arms trade and is ultra unionist. Leonard was political officer when the union advised trade unionists to vote No in the independence referendum and later voted against Holyrood having a say in Brexit. All of which might be fine if Scottish Labour was primarily trying to wrestle working class unionist voters back from the clutches of the uber-unionist Ruth Davidson. But that would require an authentic and unequivocal-sounding stand against a second referendum – a move which would instantly scunner left-wing supporters of independence and upset the silent majority of Scots who want to keep their constitutional options open until details of the Brexit deal become clear. If Leonard nails his flag too clearly to the Union mast, he runs the risk of putting Scottish Labour on the same side as the Tories (again) and perhaps on the wrong side of history.

Scottish politics is no longer exclusively divided on class lines so the new Scottish Labour leader must have a position on the constitutional situation or risk looking weak and cannot expect to win by basking in the reflected glory of Jeremy Corbyn. Popular political leaders south of the Border have a habit of “bouncing” far less vigorously north of it. Likewise, it’s fine to have a radical-sounding position on taxation – but it’s just three years since the Labour Party dropped important powers from the Smith Commission deal – like control over the minimum wage and trade union legislation. Would that have been any different under Leonard’s leadership?

The slightest scrutiny shows that many of Corbyn’s “radical” policies for England (like ditching tuition fees and nationalising railways) have been implemented in Scotland, are in planning or cannot be accomplished because the necessary powers haven’t been devolved yet.

So Leonard will have to work hard to come up with viable, radical ideas for Scotland that chime with post-indyref political realities. The astonishing vigour of debate and activism within the independence supporting left has transformed “classic” debates about state control into new discussions about local empowerment and community ownership of land and energy. In these campaigns, Scottish Labour has made very little impact.

That’s partly because politics after 2014 isn’t all about political parties. The tens of thousands who flocked to join the SNP on 19 September obscured the fact a wider, self-organising movement was instrumental in getting Yes from 23 to 45 per cent and has continued to grow and prosper since then. Look at Common Weal’s Alternative White Paper – is Richard Leonard likely to suggest anything that outflanks the creative, radical independence-supporting Left?

Then there are the small matters of Scottish Labour’s endless capacity for in-fighting and its fraught relationship with London. Former Labour spin doctor Simon Pia insists too much is being made of apparently contradictory comments by Richard Leonard and Jeremy Corbyn over plans to suspend Kezia Dugdale from the party. He may be right. But the Scottish media spent many decades ignoring the Scottish strings that were patently being pulled by London - so it’s not surprising journalists are now making up for lost time. Not least because Jeremy Corbyn reveals such an astonishing lack of basic knowledge about Scottish life and political culture every time he ventures over the Border.

In September the Labour leader was left red faced after claiming it would be impossible for Scotland to have a separate legal system to England - when we already do. He didn’t seem to know university tuition fees and the bedroom tax don’t exist north of the Border and in his keynote conference speech in 2016 he praised Labour-run councils for fighting back against the Tories’ “cynical funding cuts” using a Glasgow business start-up scheme which had been funded entirely by £1.7million of UK government cash. It was his only reference to Scotland during his leader’s speech.

But while gaffes are embarrassing for a few days, Corbyn’s Brexit policy (or lack of it) could pose a much greater threat to Richard Leonard’s leadership. At a recent conference in Edinburgh, Labour’s Mary Creagh MP – a respected chair of the Commons Environmental Audit Select Committee – insisted there should be just one regulatory framework after Brexit. Scottish environmentalists didn’t hide their disappointment, pointing out that air and water quality standards here are higher than in England. If the UK slashes standards in a desperate bid to land post-Brexit trade deals, should Scotland really be dragged down too? The otherwise well-briefed Ms Creagh clearly hadn’t considered this.

Indeed, should Scotland have to leave the single market when a deal to remain might soon be hatched for the whole of Ireland?

Sooner or later, Scottish Labour must decide where it stands.

On the plus side, Mr Leonard has no baggage from Labour’s stale managerial years. But he needs personality, policy and panache to progress in the febrile world of Scottish politics. The days of “one more push” and “one size fits all” are over. Scots voters are savvy, engaged and expect more from an opposition leader than vague ideas and left-leaning platitudes – especially at this moment of Brexit-related crisis.

But if Richard Leonard can add an authentic, bold, progressive and distinctive voice to Holyrood debate, he may last longer and contribute more than his many, many predecessors.