In charge of an irrelevant party, Richard Leonard can take little satisfaction from the SNP’s botched reshuffle, writes Euan McColm.
The last week of term at Holyrood was a copper-bottomed disaster for the SNP. From the ditching of the Scottish Government’s flagship education bill to a reshuffle which saw First Minister Nicola Sturgeon forced to withdraw the nomination of Gillian Martin as a minister, crisis piled on top of crisis.
Elsewhere, my colleague Dani Garavelli picked over the Nationalists’ problems, meanwhile, it occurs to me that the SNP’s week from hell doesn’t only tell us about their weaknesses; it also throws into focus the continuing failure – perhaps that should be inability – of Labour to take the fight to their despised rivals.
Scottish Labour has spent 11 years in opposition at Holyrood. Those among the party’s MSPs who dismissed the SNP’s 2007 Scottish parliamentary election as a blip, and who then insisted the Nationalists would soon be “found out”, have repeatedly failed to persuade former supporters to come back to them.
And, yes, the fact that the constitution dominates political debate in Scotland has something to do with that. It was Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson’s recognition of this truth that helped her revive her party’s fortunes.
But Labour, weak on support for the Union and wrong-footed by the SNP’s skill in sweeping up swathes of voters that had been rather taken for granted, struggles to find a story to tell Scottish voters. The buck for this stops with the party’s leader at Holyrood, Richard Leonard, who replaced Kezia Dugdale last year. But Leonard – plodding, devoid of charisma, and surrounded by second-raters – is merely a symptom of a wider problem.
His victory in the 2017 leadership election was not, I think, a ringing endorsement of his original thinking or his dynamic campaigning; it was the inevitable consequence of the takeover of the UK party by Jeremy Corbyn and his rag-bag of far-left acolytes. Leonard was not the best choice for Scotland, he was the best choice for Corbynistas. Ideological and loyal in equal measure, Leonard is the weakest leader Scottish Labour has had since the dawn of devolution in 1999. Hamstrung by his devotion to Corbyn, he seemingly puts party first every time. Voters notice this kind of thing.
Last week, the Labour Party in Scotland squandered a rare opportunity to kick the SNP while it was down. Sure, Sturgeon might have been having a ’mare, but Leonard wasn’t doing much better.
Anyone who has been following the Labour Party’s handling of the UK’s vote to Leave in 2016’s EU referendum will realise it is at the heart of this inability to land a blow on the SNP.
Corbyn’s historic Euroscepticism had, he insisted two years ago, been replaced by qualified support for membership of the EU. He was a Remain voter now. But his words of support for the EU were not matched by enthusiastic campaigning. Instead, Labour’s leader played a minor role in the political battle over the UK’s relationship with Europe. Some sceptics – the rascals – suggested that Corbyn voted with the winning side.
Last week, as the SNP went into meltdown, Labour remained the model of political uncertainty, a party heavy on ideology, light on ideas.
An appearance on ITV’s Good Evening Britain chat show, alongside actors Pamela Anderson and Danny Dyer, showed the leader of the opposition at his bumbling worst. It was EastEnders star Dyer, with a brutal – and amusing – rant against “twat” David Cameron, who stole the show.
Corbyn droned through well-rehearsed lines – parliament should have a say on the shape of any divorce agreement struck between the UK and the EU, he said, but there should not be a second referendum – without ever sounding like he actually gave a damn about the matter.
It was typically half-hearted stuff that, ultimately, boiled down to the fact that Labour is intent on helping Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May to achieve Brexit, regardless of the cost.
This stance might make some political sense in England where a great many traditional Labour voters lined up behind former Ukip leader, Nigel Farage, on referendum day, but in Scotland it makes the party all but irrelevant.
The Scottish Tories have captured the market for those whose vote is dictated by their opposition to a second referendum on Scottish independence.
However, a sizeable chink exists in that Scottish Tory armour. Davidson may be socially liberal and likeable but she is inextricably tied to a Westminster government being driven towards a damaging no-deal Brexit by Boris Johnson, David Davis and other braying Little Englanders whose faith in flag over everything else echoes the worst extremes of the Scottish independence movement.
After two decades of accusations that Scottish Labour is merely a “branch office” of the UK party, Leonard should be showing some independence over the matter of Brexit. He is not obliged to follow the Corbyn path; he does so because he is – first and foremost – part of that project.
Leonard recently predicted, with some glee, that failure by the Prime Minister to secure a Brexit deal would lead to yet another general election. Labour would, this time, win and the great news would be that trade unions would have a central role to play in the new economy.
Sturgeon and her SNP colleagues may have stolen the Labour Party’s language of radicalism but there is a reason they stop short of suggesting what we need is an economy shaped by the likes of Unite’s Len McCluskey.
Recently the Labour Party employed a number of organisers charged with taking the Leonard/Corbyn message into communities across Scotland.
The fools that run the show couldn’t even get that right. One of those it hired is Jim Monaghan, who previously ran a campaign to “defend” convicted perjurer and former Scottish Socialist Party MSP Tommy Sheridan.
The employment of a man who ran a campaign that sought to brand women dragged into court by Sheridan as liars, rather than victims of his abusive behaviour is a new low for Scottish Labour.
It is time to stop being surprised that, even when the SNP is on its arse, the Labour Party hasn’t a clue what to do.