Scottish Labour needs a new leader to help save the Union – John McLellan

Neil Findlay MSP – currently not planning to stand for re-election – is Scottish Labour’s best bet for a leader able to persuade voters not to back independence, writes John McLellan.

Neil Findlay has been an MSP for Lothian since 2011 (Picture: John Devlin)
Neil Findlay has been an MSP for Lothian since 2011 (Picture: John Devlin)

At the start of 2013, three of us from the different political components of Better Together met for lunch at Wighams in Edinburgh’s West End to talk about how the independence referendum campaign was going. Even with 20 months to go and support for separation below 40 per cent, not well was the conclusion.

Seven years on and two of us met up again last week to muse about the likelihood of a re-run and, if we were glum in 2013, it’s fair to say the mood in 2020 isn’t exactly up-beat. Polls showing a narrow majority for independence are no longer one-off outriders but regular occurrences and some previously pro-UK commentators are now talking about independence as an inevitability. And as we compared then with now and discussed the rights and wrongs of 2012-14, one thing remains the same but for entirely different reasons – the problem of Scottish Labour.

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When the SNP’s outright majority at the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections thrust independence to the top of the agenda, it was accepted by all unionist parties that Labour was key to victory and so ex-chancellor Alistair Darling was the obvious choice to chair a new all-party organisation. Respected for his handling of the banking crisis, and for his notable feat of lasting four years as transport minister without controversy, he was a safe pair of hands with whom all sides could work.

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Launch day at Napier University’s Craiglockhart campus in June 2012 was picketed by about half-a-dozen pro-independence demonstrators and by the time Mr Darling, Ruth Davidson and Willie Rennie went outside for a photo-call they were gone. With independence polling at just below 30 per cent it wasn’t so surprising, but two years of hard focus on the economy later and the SNP was within touching distance of victory. The infamous Panelbase poll showing Yes ahead with a fortnight to go laid the foundations for two myths: that the day was only saved by the impassioned 11-hour intervention by ex-PM Gordon Brown and his rousing speech at a Labour rally, and the Labour-supporting Daily Record sealed the deal with “The Vow” front page days before polling.

I’ve never believed it was The Vow wot won it, or that Gordon Brown single-handedly turned 49-51 into 55-45 for the Union, but with almost total control over the campaign strategy and messaging, the responsibility for losing a lead of over 15 per cent lay largely with Labour. The Conservative role in the campaign was largely limited to fund-raising and supplying poll data, but the decisions about how much was spent and on what were taken by the Labour-dominated board.

For the ‘people’s party’, the trajectory has remained downhill and with one MP, 23 MSPs, polling at 14 per cent and the leader Richard Leonard largely invisible to the public, who can blame four MSPs for breaking ranks to call for him to quit. Unlike the clean exit of Scottish Conservative leader Jackson Carlaw, the result is a bitter internal feud, with Mr Leonard effectively demanding the deselection of the four rebels who Lothian MSP Neil Findlay described as deluded.

Mr Findlay is particularly angry, despite the fact he left the Labour front bench last year and is not standing for re-election, and although he and I have little in common politically, it appears we agree on Better Together. “The same people who are demanding [Richard Leonard] resigns are the ones who told us that Better Together was a huge success story for Labour and that Jim Murphy was the salvation of the party,” he said on Twitter. “It’s treachery with a snarl.”

I’d also agree with Mr Leonard’s supporters who point out there is no obvious successor who will make a difference with so little time left before voting in May. But much to the discomfort of those moderates who are leading the bid to oust Mr Leonard, the best bet for taking the fight to the SNP and seeing off another independence bid could be Mr Findlay himself. He has scored direct hits on Nicola Sturgeon over the scandal of Covid-infected people being sent into care homes, would be well-placed to expose the contradictions in what remains a single-issue party held together by a common goal and his hard-left views will chime with young people attracted to the socialist side of the SNP coin.

The SNP long understood that the road to victory lay in replacing Labour in the West of Scotland and Labour’s revival in Scotland, if there is to be one, will not come from fighting elections like it’s 1999. But left or right, for years now Scottish Labour leaders have lacked what Ruth Davidson brought to the Conservative cause, the ability to connect. Agree with him or not, Mr Findlay can communicate with a fire Mr Leonard couldn’t muster if he crashed a truckload of Swan Vestas into a petrol station.

The UK leader Sir Keir Starmer is backing Mr Leonard for now, but he knows his party has never won power without a strong cohort of Scottish MPs, and failing to claw back support from the SNP now will mean disaster in May and increase the chances of a referendum which could, if current polling is reproduced, put Labour out of Number 10 for a generation.

If there is another independence vote there will not be another Better Together and Labour will be free to make its own arguments and, for the next nine months at least, its task should be to demonstrate a coherent socialist case for unity and to spell out the implications for previously Labour voters who now believe breaking up Britain will improve their lot. Labour strategist John McTernan (who wrote leaders for Scotland on Sunday when I was editor) this week argued that the inability of Mr Leonard’s “weak, beleaguered and unconvincing leadership” to make a left-wing unionist argument was a threat to the UK itself. “A Scottish Labour Party that is rudderless and effectively leaderless is unable to make the core case,” he said. Nothing in recent days suggests Mr Leonard is about to undergo a transformation.

As media theorist Marshal McLuhan famously said, the medium is the message and a strong left-wing pro-UK party needs an authentic and charismatic communicator and although Blairite Mr McTernan and the rebels wouldn’t like it, Mr Findlay might be their best chance. He says he wants to preserve the spirit of Jeremy Corbyn in his party, but under Mr Leonard there will be no party to preserve. Mr Leonard will be gone in May so Labour’s choice is act now or wait for the inevitable.

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