Euan McColm: Leonard’s ‘triumph’ means less than zero

Richard Leonard's actions have confirmed the status of the Scottish party as a branch office. Picture: John Devlin
Richard Leonard's actions have confirmed the status of the Scottish party as a branch office. Picture: John Devlin
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Scottish Labour’s troubles are over. It says so on the internet. And all it took was for Scottish leader Richard Leonard to sack MSPs Jackie Baillie and Anas Sarwar from his Holyrood front bench.

Like me, you may have believed that Scottish Labour’s crisis was deep and complex but, according to those most loyal to the Jeremy Corbyn project, things are now looking up.

The seemingly ubiquitous pro-Corbyn pundit Aaron Bastani, having heard rumours on Thursday about the sackings, tweeted: “Good. Boot out the wreckers and watch the polling numbers rise.”

This deeply optimistic assessment sums up perfectly the mindset of the Corbynista: all that is necessary for Labour to triumph is for every member, regardless of their feelings about the party’s shift left under the current leader, to get with the programme.

If only the Labour Party had elected Corbyn leader a decade ago, perhaps the SNP would never have gone on to do quite so well.

The truth is that anyone who believes Leonard did his party any great favours by sacking Baillie and Sarwar is kidding themselves. The problems faced by Labour in Scotland will not be solved by what amounts, right now, to little more than the rearrangement of deckchairs while the iceberg looms.

Among what we might call Labour centrists, the reaction to the dismissal of these two MSPs from the front-bench was to treat it as a catastrophe, as something that would – in fact – further damage the party’s standing in Scotland.

This, in its own way, is as deluded a view as the one that says the removal of Baillie and Sarwar will transform the party’s fortunes. With the greatest of respect to both, I doubt the Scottish electorate is currently of the view that, if only Labour had more “moderates”, it would be more appealing.

The truth, so far as I can see, is that the same problems that have undermined Labour’s position in Scotland for years continue to exist. The notion – successful exploited by the nationalists – that Scottish Labour is not truly free to act as it wishes but is, rather, a branch office of the UK party is not contradicted by these sackings (which have the enthusiastic approval of the leadership in London). The sense that, for too long, Labour took for granted its supporters in Scotland is not diminished because Sarwar and Baillie now sit on the back benches.

On the same day that Leonard announced the dismissal of this pair of experienced parliamentarians, it emerged that Scottish Labour’s head of communications, Charlie Mann, had quit after just six months in the role. In a statement, he said he had decided the position was not for him.

Mann – who spent several years as a public relations adviser to controversial former Hearts boss Vladimir Romanov – had struggled to change Scottish Labour’s story. He may be an experienced practitioner of the dark arts of PR, but Mann could do nothing with a brand so badly damaged.

The SNP will have been delighted by Leonard’s reshuffle. Anas Sarwar and Jackie Baillie may not be game-changing politicians but both are good on their feet in the debating chamber and ministers will be perfectly happy to see the back of the pair of them.

Back in the 1980s, when the UK Labour Party was last under the influence of the hard(er) left, it was Scottish Labour that helped prevent disaster. While Labour councils in England did all they could to earn the “loony left” accusations from opponents, Scottish Labour – a small “c” conservative organisation – remained steady and cautious.

This Caledonian anchor is now gone, with constituency parties across the country now controlled by Corbynista zealots whose mission seems to be not to win elections but to punish those in Labour’s ranks who are considered impure.

The SNP has frequently adopted the language of the Labour Party. As it rose to power, nationalist claims to be the true guardians of the values of the left had a certain romantic resonance among voters who had fallen out of love with the New Labour project. But while the SNP has persuaded some – just look how many members of Scotland’s “radical” left now line up to support First Minister Nicola Sturgeon – that it’s the real heir to principles abandoned by Tony Blair and other Labour bogeymen, in government the party remains assuredly on the centre ground. Scottish Government policies are not – no matter how they may be spun to some sections of the electorate – the stuff of radical politics. Instead, the SNP, with policies such as free university tuition, remains focused, when it comes to elections, on the middle classes.

Scots may be more politically engaged (in many cases, I’m sure, much to their annoyance) than ever before, but it remains the case that, come polling day, turnouts are highest in better-off areas. The SNP knows these voters decide the outcomes of elections and it has no interest in abandoning them for a 
scare-the-horses agenda of high taxes and massive expansion of the public sector.

Those in the Labour Party who think the answer to the SNP’s dominance is the removal of a couple of centre-left spokespeople from the front-bench are living in la-la land.

Whether it moves left or right, Scottish Labour will not – I believe – begin to recover until the independence question is settled or made less relevant. The party’s opposition to Scottish independence cost it the support of some voters who, having backed Yes, changed their political allegiance to the SNP. Bewildered by this loss of support, Labour was wishy-washy on the possibility of another referendum, allowing Tory leader Ruth Davidson to cement her position as the champion of the majority of Scots who voted No in 2014.

The constitution will remain at the centre of our politics until either a second referendum is staged or fully ruled out. While that remains the case, Scottish Labour will struggle to appear relevant, regardless of who sits beside Richard Leonard in the Holyrood debating chamber.