Time is up for Richard Leonard with Labour on a road to nowhere - Euan McColm
“I cannot,” he said, “see anybody, at the moment, who I think would make a better leader.”
Rather than crumbling or laying down to die, Leonard insisted he would survive. He put up his dukes and invited all comers to take their chances; if there was a formal challenge to his leadership, he’d fight for the support of his party’s members.
And so the man who leads Scotland’s third political party clings on to a job for which all the available evidence says he is entirely unsuited.
The party’s former whip at the Scottish Parliament, James Kelly, had led the charge against Leonard, issuing the first demand for him to go. Kelly was followed by fellow MSPs Jenny Marra, Daniel Johnson, and Mark Griffin. Then a handful of Labour peers joined this chorus of disapproval. If Labour wasn’t to sink further into political oblivion at next May’s Scottish Parliamentary elections, it was time for a new leader to step up.
So far, a formal challenge hasn’t been made but Leonard should expect that to be the next step in what must be the beginning of the end of his woeful leadership.
When Leonard succeeded Kezia Dugdale as his party’s umpteenth leader at Holyrood, three years ago, he did so as a fully signed-up member of the Jeremy Corbyn project. Previously – and rightly – an obscure figure on the party’s unreconstructed left, Leonard found himself the beneficiary of the madness that had gripped Labour. His supporters believed that, if only Labour would move back to the sort of confrontational socialism that had seen the party teeter on the brink of irrelevance in the 1980s, it might somehow begin to regain political momentum.
This, of course, has not happened. Instead, Leonard has seen to it that Scottish Labour is more distant from the electorate than before.
After the 2014 independence referendum, Scottish Labour’s existential crisis – which had begun with defeat at the hands of the SNP in the 2007 Scottish Parliament election – deepened.
Rattled by the fact that a number of its traditional supporters had backed a Yes vote, Labour struggled to find a credible position on the constitution. Some senior figures suggested that, perhaps, they might even back the break-up of the UK should the question be asked again.
This chaotic reaction to the referendum result did nothing but further damage Scottish Labour’s credibility and it left space for the Conservatives to cement their position as defenders of the Union.
While Labour’s fortunes continued to fall, the Tories rose from the political graveyard. Once written off as all but extinct in Scotland, the Conservatives became the largest opposition party at Holyrood.
And, all the while, Labour twisted and turned, hoping – in vain – to win back Yes voters who now viewed it with withering contempt.
As leader, Leonard has failed to make Scottish Labour’s position any clearer. He remains an obscure figure (a recent poll showed a majority of Scots don’t even have an opinion about him) and it’s difficult to see how he changes that, so far into his leadership.
It’s not just Labour colleagues who believe Leonard must go. Senior members of the Conservative party dearly want to see him replaced, even – no, especially – if that means Labour becomes a strong political force once more.
As First Minister Nicola Sturgeon continues to demand from the UK Government the right to hold a second independence referendum, Conservative strategists believe the Union will only survive if there’s a strong Scottish Labour Party playing its part in the battle.
Richard Leonard retains the support of a number of colleagues. There’s the MSP, Neil Findlay, for example, who accused his leader’s critics of “treachery”.
Those critics point out that Findlay’s defining achievement in politics was to oversee Labour’s last European election campaign which saw the party return no MEPs.
Yesterday morning, former First Minister Henry McLeish popped up on BBC Radio Scotland to offer his view of the situation. Leonard should remain in post, he said, adding that Labour could not continue to deprive Scots of another referendum.
This was hardly helpful. Labour is currently in no position to deprive voters of anything. It is without power or influence.
McLeish was right, though, to focus on the constitutional question. It continues to dominate our politics, after all.
But recent history shows us there’s no ground to be made by acceding to the nationalists’ demands. Those who once shifted their allegiance from Labour to the SNP over the constitutional question are gone now, and for some time to come.
Instead, Scottish Labour must find a way of reconnecting with those voters who believe independence to be a reckless idea.
A key plank of the SNP’s campaign is the idea of Scots being forever “ruled over” by the Conservative Party. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson is not in the position of strength he once was.
Jeremy Corbyn’s successor as Labour leader, Keir Starmer, has dragged his party back up in the polls and, while it might be rather premature to think of him as a Prime-Minister-in-waiting, he currently looks like a contender.
And here is where Scottish Labour might find a path back, if not to power, at least to relevance.
The SNP message may be that to end this Tory government, Scots must leap into the darkness and support an independence project fraught with uncertainty. Labour’s should be that the way to get Boris Johnson out of Downing Street is to rally behind Starmer.
Richard Leonard, I’m afraid, is not the man to deliver that message. He’s not, so far as I can see, the man to deliver any kind of message.
A new leader will not miraculously revive Scottish Labour’s fortunes overnight but, if the party is to avoid falling deeper into the swamp of obscurity, it needs a new figurehead and it needs one now
Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.