Insight: How Scottish Labour found itself in a ‘death spiral’

Music buff Richard Leonard with Jeremy Corbyn on a visit to The Playz in Kilwinning during a visit to Scotland by the UK party leader. Picture: John Devlin
Music buff Richard Leonard with Jeremy Corbyn on a visit to The Playz in Kilwinning during a visit to Scotland by the UK party leader. Picture: John Devlin
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After the Euro elections Scottish Labour is staring virtual extinction in the face, yet a remedy for its failure is as elusive as ever, writes Gina Davidson

Amid the clattering of plates and cutlery in a small, open plan, Mediterranean restaurant populated with theatre-goers and the odd EastEnders actress, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown met to discuss the future of the political project to which both were utterly committed.

Members believe Richard Leonard is unlikely to be replaced as leader. Photograph: Greg Macvean

Members believe Richard Leonard is unlikely to be replaced as leader. Photograph: Greg Macvean

As they sat in Granita 25 years ago – almost to the day – their agreement would set in course a train of events which would radically alter both the Labour Party and Britain for the next two decades.

As they sat in Granita 25 years ago – almost to the day – their agreement would set in course a train of events which would radically alter both the Labour Party and Britain for the next two decades.

Their pact ushered in an era of transformational governments and saw a party which had previously been unelectable win three general elections, before it was ultimately consumed by the financial conflagration which swept the globe in 2008, triggering a recession, and handing the Conservatives a gift-wrapped hammer with which to pummel Labour’s record of 13 years in government.

Is it over-reaching to suggest that the fateful meeting is even responsible for where the Labour Party now finds itself today, most especially in Scotland?

Perhaps. But the election of two left-wing leaders – or “hard left” depending on whom you talk to – in Jeremy Corbyn and Richard Leonard was undoubtedly a reaction against the centrist nature of the politics of Blair, Brown and even Ed Miliband, and of Jim Murphy and Kezia Dugdale in Scotland. It was also against the idea that “centrism” meant supporting the austerity agenda of the Conservatives.

There is no small irony too in the fact that while it was a Blair government that delivered the Scottish Parliament, it is in Holyrood where Labour’s collapse has been felt most keenly; sliding from government to official opposition to third place with just 23 MSPs.

The likelihood of that number falling further in the 2021 Holyrood elections and the party becoming little more than a pressure group is all too real according to some in the party given last month’s European elections saw it lose both its MEPs and slump to fifth place in terms of vote share.

So where now for the once mighty Labour Party in Scotland? What is the future for a political force forged in the dirt, heat and danger of Scotland’s pits, steelworks and shipyards, moulded by the fierce aspiration of working class men and women determined their children would have better lives than they did, and shaped by a belief in collective action as espoused by the trade union movement?

Where does it go when the descendants of these people turn away from its messages and slogans, because they no longer have any belief, and when constitutional questions snuff out any debate on the tackling of poverty and the creation of jobs, leaving Labour’s bread and butter policies with no room to draw breath?

These are the questions troubling the minds of Labour politicians and members, north and south of the border. Does the answer lie in yet more leadership elections? Would replacing Corbyn or Leonard deliver life to a political party which is flatlining? (In UK terms a recent poll put it in joint third place on 19 per cent with the Conservatives and way behind the Liberal Democrats.)

Is it just clarity of position on Brexit that’s required or does it go deeper and should Scottish Labour cut its ties to the UK party? Should it even go so far as to change its stance on independence?

It’s now a week since the European elections results saw Scottish Labour win just 9.3 per cent of the vote, and Leonard is still in place even if his campaign manager, Neil Findlay, and his justice spokesperson, Daniel Johnson, have both quit his shadow cabinet, if for divergent reasons. Those within the Labour ranks know there are two reasons for this and neither are particularly cheerful: nobody is organised enough to challenge him, and nobody wants the job.

One senior party source says: “There’s zero chance of a challenge – if there was it would have happened by now. No-one wants it.

“In my opinion the party is over. The leadership is immovable and not interested in winning. Its purpose is to serve the trade union movement and Corbyn. He should be building a broad church – what he’ll actually do next is start a purifying project through selections. Moderates will retire or be retired by a Corbynite selectorate.

“There’s nothing that says the Scottish Labour Party must always exist. I think it’s in a death spiral, the pace of which is accelerating and can’t be stopped.”

While there is undoubtedly fury at the election results among much of the membership, and calls for Leonard to go, such a bleak view is not universal. Many still believe there’s time for some form of resurrection by 2021 – but only if there is a change in Leonard’s approach.

“If Richard doesn’t start to tell a story about the future we might as well all give up and go home,” says a party insider. “We are stuck with a moderate wing pretending we can go back to the mid-2000s when Labour was in government, and the left who are still fighting the same arguments of 1983, and both of these mindsets spell death for the party. He has to talk about the future.”

He adds: “There’s no point Richard going. The people who would be able to make that happen don’t seem to have a plan. In fact, in true Labour tradition, they seem split on it.

“But we’ve been through so many leaders, to say the problem lies with his leadership is to fundamentally miss the point. It’s the people he has around him – he needs to be asking himself: ‘Are they there to see him become first minister or are they there to deliver Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street?’

“I think he’s being let down in that respect. They’re working under the assumption that staying close to Corbyn is a route to victory. They should get out on the doorsteps to hear what Scottish voters really think about Corbyn.

“He needs to cut ties with Corbyn if he’s to retain any of the goodwill there was in the party towards him, even from those who didn’t support him in the leadership election.”

Anas Sarwar, Leonard’s opponent in that campaign also believes that Leonard’s supporters are a problem. He’s said that while the factionalism needs to stop “the culture is set at the top”.

“Rather than showing humility and reaching out, it’s deeply disappointing that those responsible for the election campaign have chosen to lash out and attack their own colleagues. The newsfeeds and social media accounts that believe they speak for the leadership need to understand the damage they do to it and the wider party by constantly baiting and attacking our own.”

Even among those who supported Leonard’s leadership there’s disquiet. “He is a thoughtful, considerate person who has some good ideas, but that is being forgotten in the light of these results.

“I have had to talk down some members from lodging motions of no confidence. They are very angry. So Richard needs to really step up into the leadership role, spell out what he thinks, and take the party with him in the direction he wants to go. He needs to do his own thing and if that leads to some conflict with Corbyn then so be it.”

Ask Blair McDougall, Labour’s head strategist with the Better Together campaign in the independence referendum five years ago, where the problems began, and he points to 2011 and the Holyrood election which saw the SNP become a majority government.

“That was an extermination level event for us,” he says. “Normally when a party gets hit by a landslide, then by the time of the next election it pulls some back with a new generation of people who then start to become the standard bearers of what comes next.

“But that extermination level event was followed by another two so we didn’t get those people in place, so we don’t have the new blood who by now would be experienced operators.

“To be honest we don’t have the political talent – and nobody ever admits to that. So to be successful in 2021 a lot of people have to go and that takes real courage and leadership, especially if people are your pals. But we need a younger, more ambitious group of people in Holyrood to begin to lead the recovery.”

He adds: “We need to win back people who are natural Labour voters but vote SNP, not because they’re nationalists, but because the SNP look like they can walk and chew gum at the same time. Similarly we need to win back those Labour voters who voted Conservative in 2017, but are not natural Tories, but because they see us as lacking in confidence on the issue of the Union.

“We don’t need strategies that face two ways – if we make the case for what we actually believe in, and make it emphatically, that will go a long way. There’s no easy road back but we make things much harder for ourselves than we need to.”

This is particularly true of the party’s approach to constitutional issues, says McDougall. “We’re in a state of existential angst on the Union and now on Europe as well. But it should be simple: we are a pro-EU party which believes leaving the UK would be a disaster.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Martin McCluskey, a Labour general election candidate for Inverclyde, and Kezia Dugdale’s former political director, holds views similar McDougall’s. “In Scotland, our membership and our representatives – like the country – are pro-EU and pro-UK. We are in the same place as the vast majority of Scots. We shouldn’t be finding it hard to gain support when people want an alternative to the division that Brexit and independence has created.

“But we can’t even get a hearing for our popular policies because we have been fighting with one hand behind our back. We shouldn’t shy away from what we believe – we need to be confident in our beliefs or we can’t expect others to support us.”

Of course, the Scottish Labour leader would say he is entirely confident in his beliefs – indeed they have changed little since Leonard joined the party while a student in Stirling 36 years ago.

A source close to him says: “Richard has given his life to the Labour Party and he is feeling the same as the rest of us when something you love seems to be dying. This is where he departs from those who believe that it’s all about keeping control of the party, and supporting Jeremy at all costs – even if it means losing votes. Holding on to power is not where he starts, he is thinking about how the hell we get out of this. He won’t resign, and he’s right to stay and fight on and he will take people with him.”

MSP Elaine Smith, who is one of Leonard’s most vocal supporters, believes the Euro result wasn’t a surprise given the “nuanced” position of the party, and plays down the suggestion of splits in the ranks of MSPs. “We had two very frank meetings on Tuesday and people were able to air their opinions and as Richard said, the group fully supports him.

“As for Jeremy Corbyn, he is the leader of the national party and of course the leader in Scotland would want to get on with him – I think that was one mistake Kezia made when she was leader. But everyone who knows Richard knows he’s his own man and he wants to take a Scottish approach to issues.

“We’ll have a long battle to get back to where we should be, and the biggest problem was the independence referendum and we suffered because of our association with Better Together. So we still have to find the space to tell people how their lives would improve with a Labour government and how we would use the powers of one of the most powerful parliaments in the world to do that.”

She adds: “Passions run high on constitutional issues on both sides but Richard is right to have moved to a confirmatory vote on any Brexit deal. As for Scottish independence, we have been clear – and remain so – we do not believe in breaking up the UK and there will be no change in that position. If there’s another independence referendum we will run a United for Labour campaign.”

Perhaps then, rather than being in its death throes, Scottish Labour could be on the brink of rejuvenation with the prospect of two referendums ahead. Maybe Leonard will be able to grasp the opportunity of being crystal clear on both the EU and independence, and benefit in the same way Ruth Davidson did in the 2014 vote.

For McDougall it’s vital that happens for there to be any future: “We need to stop being weak and apologetic and to be comfortable with what we believe, because if we don’t then why should any voter believe what we’re saying? And that is an easy thing to fix – just answer yes or no to the binary questions and then you’ll find the space to talk about changing people’s lives.”