As his predecessor Kezia Dugdale appears on reality TV show “I’m a Celebrity”, new Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard describes his priorities.
It is a huge privilege to have been elected as the leader of the Scottish Labour Party, but it is also an immense responsibility. In a week dominated by reality television, my driving force remains the need to bring about a real change to the harsh daily reality of life faced by too many people in too many communities right across Scotland.
Today there are over a quarter of a million children living in poverty in Scotland and this number is rising. Seventy per cent of them live in households where at least one adult is in work: we have a major problem of in-work poverty. And this winter, as the temperature drops, hundreds of thousands of our pensioners – especially our older pensioners – will be living in fuel poverty, forced to choose between heating and eating.
The scale of this challenge makes tackling this deep-rooted poverty and inequality my top priority. Last Saturday, after being elected Scottish Labour leader, my first act was to visit the work-in at BiFab in Fife. These jobs have only been saved because this group of workers, with the support of their trade unions, GMB and Unite, decided not to walk away but to work in.
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It was a brave act without which an important part of our manufacturing base in fragile local economies could have been lost. But it also pointed to the crying need for a proactive Scottish industrial policy to move the economy away from the last resort of crisis rescue after crisis rescue.
The next morning, after a meeting of Scottish Labour MPs and MSPs, I was out on the campaign trail, hearing from voters and delivering Labour’s message of real change and hope in the heart of our communities in support of our by-election campaign in South Lanarkshire.
This was in stark contrast to the offer made to workers, families and pensioners by the Tory Chancellor’s budget this week. It was more of the same from a failing government presiding over a failing economy. The predicted levels of growth for the UK have flat-lined and Scotland’s economy is stagnating; growing three times slower than the rest of the UK.
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Behind every downgraded economic forecast delivered by the Tories, there are more families suffering, having to get by on insecure work and far too many pensioners unable to heat their homes. Yet it is a Budget which Ruth Davidson and her Tory group in Parliament have this week defended. In my view we cannot continue with a society where we leave un-tackled such huge wealth inequality. The Scottish Government’s own figures show that the richest one per cent now own more personal wealth than the poorest 50 per cent put together.
Scotland urgently needs an industrial strategy to boost our economy, create well-paid, quality jobs of the future and bring much-needed investment in infrastructure. This broken economic system needs real and radical change that benefits the many and not simply the few at the top – not just for now but for the long term. The Scottish Parliament was delivered by Labour to be a bulwark against Conservative cuts, not a conveyor belt for them.
Which is why my focus at my first First Minister’s Questions was not on cheap political point-scoring or playing to the gallery – it was focused on the harsh reality of the SNP Government’s cuts to Scotland’s Fire and Rescue Service and what that will mean to the communities that they serve. I heard from brave men and women outside Parliament this week, calling on the Government to listen to their concerns about a service on the brink: one in which over 700 frontline firefighter jobs have been cut in Scotland since the service was centralised. And it was the calls and concerns of firefighters that I raised with the First Minister in the Parliament.
Just yesterday I met with Labour council leaders striving to defend their communities from SNP austerity. We will bring the whole Labour movement together to defend jobs and public services because we cannot go on with the cuts.
It is the workers like those gallant women and men at BiFab, the firefighters who risk their lives to save ours, those other public service workers who deliver vital local services, and all those voters battling against in-work and pensioner poverty, like the people in Rutherglen that I met this week, that I will stand up for as the leader of Scottish Labour.
Make no mistake, I will not be seduced by position or status but instead I will strive to be a Labour leader who brings the focus of Parliament onto what matters to people’s everyday lives, working with our council leaders, the trades unions, grassroots organisations, ordinary people and Scottish communities fighting against cuts. The Scottish Labour Party under my leadership will at all times represent the interests of the many and not just a privileged few.
We need to build a society that values everyone with equality, a society that tackles the levels of poverty and inequality that scar Scotland, and a society that invests in our people, our industries and our public services. The Scottish Labour Party is the only mass political party that promises to do that. As a result, we are reaching out to those people who have lost faith in politics, including lost Labour voters. We are acting as a bridge as well to those young people who are joining the party in large numbers, enthused by our new sense of movement and radicalism.
We saw in June, under the principled leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, that our message of progressive taxation, of redistributing power as well as wealth, and of expanding common ownership, including public, municipal and cooperative ownership, resonated with the electorate. We now have to build on that progress; we have to spread our message of hope and optimism. We need to relentlessly communicate what a Labour Government at Westminster will do to help transform Scotland and so fight to remove the Tories from office – all the while exposing the failures of the SNP in Scotland. And we need to win support for our vision of the different and better future we could build with the election of a Scottish Labour Government. We are in a new age of politics. The consensus of market-driven politics is being rejected. People are citizens not merely consumers. They want hope and they want real and radical change that works for the many not the few. That is what I intend the Scottish Labour Party will deliver.