Richard Leonard’s appointment of Neil Findlay as Scottish Labour’s Brexit spokesman creates challenges, writes Tom Peterkin.
An eagerly awaited highlight of the festive season for political journalists is the Christmas email sent to them by the Labour left-winger Neil Findlay.
One particularly memorable effort saw him circulate an animation that had Holyrood journalists’ byline photos superimposed on dancing elves. Mr Findlay suggested the press corps were auditioning for Strictly Come Dancing.
This year’s card dropped into inboxes yesterday. It was a picture of Santa Claus with the following caption: “Before you make fun of children for believing in me. Remember, there are adults who still believe in capitalism.”
His unashamed and jocular championing of the left was accompanied with the message: “Dear All – have a peaceful and enjoyable Christmas and let’s look forward to a comradely New Year.”
As ever, Mr Findlay’s Christmas card was received in excellent spirits by the “workers” in the media.
But, at the risk of casting a slight shadow over the season of goodwill, one suspects Mr Findlay’s hopes for a “comradely” 2018 may be a trifle optimistic – at least when it comes to his comrades within his own party. One of the more remarked upon features of the front-bench team finally unveiled by Scottish Labour leader this week was the appointment of Mr Findlay as Brexit spokesperson.
That Mr Findlay should be a key member of Mr Leonard’s team should come as a surprise to no-one. He is respected as a principled, energetic, capable and effective politician. One only has to look at the work he has done on behalf of women whose lives have been blighted by mesh implants to see his value as a dogged and compassionate campaigner. As the standard bearer of the Labour left in the Scottish Parliament, he should be a natural fit in Mr Leonard’s left-leaning team.
He is also one of the few politicians in the Holyrood chamber with the rhetorical ability to really turn the heat on the SNP.
A memorable example of that particular ability was his evisceration of what he sees as the SNP’s contradictory position whereby it wants to leave the UK yet be a member of the EU.
It was in a Scottish Parliament debate last year that he challenged the Scottish Government to explain the “logic” of “wanting to leave a political union of 60 million (the UK) to join a political union of 750 million (the EU).”
In contrast to the pro-EU position expounded by the SNP leadership (if not all of its supporters), Mr Findlay himself – like many others on the left – has a lukewarm attitude to the political bloc.
Mr Findlay’s Euroscepticism is well-known and he himself described his Remain vote as a reluctant one.
Therein lies the rub that many Labour people will have with the make-up of Mr Leonard’s front bench. It is not the fact that Mr Findlay has been promoted, the difficulty is with the role he has been given. Like the Conservatives and SNP, Labour is split on Europe. There are fervent Europhiles as well as ardent Brexiteers. Given the polarised views on EU withdrawal, there may be those who believe a reluctant Remainer like Mr Findlay would be well placed to steer the Scottish Labour ship through Brexit’s choppy waters. But within minutes of Mr Findlay being made front-bench spokesperson for Brexit, Campaigns and Public Engagement there were murmurings among the pro-EU Labour moderates.
Having lost a pro-EU leader in Kezia Dugdale, the concern was that Scottish Labour would now align itself with the distinctly Eurosceptic attitude of Jeremy Corbyn. Ms Dugdale has criticised Mr Corbyn for fighting a “lacklustre” Remain campaign and expressed frustration that UK Labour is not doing more to maintain membership of the single market.
Adding to the concern of the moderates was the promotion of Elaine Smith to Mr Leonard’s front bench. Another stalwart of the Labour left, Ms Smith voted for Brexit.
Along with Mr Findlay and Mr Leonard (another reluctant Remainer), Ms Smith incurred the wrath of the then leader Ms Dugdale by defying the Labour whip in a key Holyrood Brexit vote. Mr Findlay, Mr Leonard and Ms Smith were the only three Labour MSPs to vote with the Tories against a Scottish Government motion protesting against the triggering of Article 50. Against that background, it is possible to see why Mr Leonard’s front bench may not chime with all in Labour, given that the majority of Scottish members are opposed to EU withdrawal.
Moreover it may not be comfortable fit for the likes of the new Justice spokesman Daniel Johnson, who represents Edinburgh South – a constituency which recorded a 78 per cent Remain vote in 2016 EU referendum. A similar clash is evident with Mr Leonard’s defeated rival Anas Sarwar, who has been reappointed Health spokesman. A major plank of Mr Sarwar’s leadership campaign was to protect single market and customs union membership.
Maintaining shadow cabinet collective responsibility could prove challenging in such circumstances. Meanwhile on the SNP benches there will be MSPs licking their lips at the prospect of making political capital out of Labour’s internal divisions on Brexit. Mr Findlay can take solace in the fact that he has taken on the SNP on EU withdrawal before, but one suspects he will require all of his considerable political skills to perform his new Brexit balancing act.