Interview: Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. Picture: Greg Macvean
Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. Picture: Greg Macvean
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Richard Leonard is taking off his coat and talking about his previous night’s trip to see Paul Weller at the Glasgow Hydro, a few hundred metres from where we have met.

He is a long-time Weller fan, he tells me, having first seen The Jam in Leeds back in the 70s. So was he impressed? He wrinkles his nose. “I wasn’t sure about the song choice,” he says. “I liked his last album, but is it really right for a man of nearly 60 to be performing The Eton Rifles?”

Could this be a Freudian slip, I wonder. Because, in one short sentence, Leonard has unwittingly held up a mirror to himself. To some, the trade unionist turned leader of Scottish Labour is a throwback who can’t stop singing the old songs: rousing anthems about class war and industrial decline that seem to belong to a different era.

“He is very intelligent, but he likes to use a lot of words like ‘proletariat’ that might not resonate with people on the doorsteps and he is very interested in industrial economics,” says one party insider.

Another way to look at it, of course, is that Leonard’s “retro” feel is very much the zeitgeist; that his harking back to traditional Labour values has helped him benefit from the Jeremy Corbyn bounce.

His latest party political broadcast is a gimmick-free zone in which he walks the streets, talking to the camera while gesturing emphatically in the old trade union way. As he walks, he invokes the ghosts of John Wheatley and Jennie Lee; of John Smith and Donald Dewar, but he also outlines his plans to improve people’s lives: raise the living wage to £10 an hour, outlaw zero hours contracts and, yes, introduce an industrial strategy to increase employment.

His premise appears to be that we have come full circle; that the problems which existed in the Thatcher years – problems of entrenched social and economic inequality – are as pronounced under the current Tory government as they ever were. Since taking over from Kezia Dugdale, who may or may not have been deposed in a Corbynite coup, he has moved the party to the left, backing significantly higher taxes for the better off and the re-nationalisation of transport services.

“It seems to me, it’s completely relevant for the Scottish Labour Party to look at a situation where there has been a massive growth in wealth – 22 per cent over the past two years it was measured – and a polarisation of wealth ownership, so the richest 1 per cent own more personal wealth than the whole of the bottom 50 per cent put together,” he says.

“As a party founded on a value of democratic socialism in an era of austerity, it’s right we start to address some of these things: to look at what that could mean fiscally, but also at what it says about the distribution of power.”

Leonard, 55, is wearing a dark suit with the requisite red tie. He has a jaunty, yet suave demeanour and a face that blends Kenneth Williams with Mad Men’s Roger Sterling. Though at FMQs he can come across as dreary, in person he is congenial, even charming. He has that politician’s way of making you feel you have his undivided attention, dropping your name lightly into the conversation for added effect.

We are drinking tea in the Crowne Plaza, a great glass vessel built on the site of dry docks that would once have clanged and clattered to the noise of shipyard workers. Its interior décor harks back to this heritage; some of the walls are painted to resemble rivet-studded metal panels, and a mural depicts muscular men hammering and welding. But outside the restaurant is a scene that is part urban decline, part sci-fi dreamscape, the tarnished steel of the Finnieston Crane contrasting with the gleam of the Armadillo.

It is an appropriate backdrop for a man whose politics were forged in the crucible of de-industrialisation. As the son of an East Yorkshire tailor, Leonard had a ringside seat at the way it tore communities apart. The year after Thatcher came into power, the factory closed and his father lost his job. By then, Leonard was at Stirling University, but his parents, Derek and Janet, and his 10-year-old sister were forced to sell up and move south for work.

“They were hard times,” he says. “ My family moved away, but my parents’ parents stayed close by, so the responsibility for looking after them shifted on to my older sister, who had just got married. There were all kinds of consequences for families.”

Leonard was born in 1962 in the market town of Malton. His mum and dad were Labour-minded though not party members. “From the 60s to the mid-70s, it was [Edward] Heath versus [Harold] Wilson. It was a period when you had the three-day week and the miners were on strike and then Heath went to the country saying: ‘Who runs Britain: Is it me or is it the miners?’ and we voted for the miners.” Did the three-day week leave a lasting impression? “Well, if the TV goes off at 10pm and you are living by candlelight, it is rather striking, though I guess it was subliminal at that stage.”

At the age of 11, Leonard’s life took an unexpected turn; he gained a direct grant place (paid for by the local authority) at the prestigious Pocklington School, a 30-minute bus journey away. There, he was educated alongside more affluent boys – his contemporaries included artist and dandy Sebastian Horsley. “It was an introduction to the class system – a sense that there were some people who were from a more materially privileged background,” he says. “I suppose it expanded my horizons away from a community I was brought up in. The bright kids I was at primary school with ended up working in factories and railways to a large extent. For me, the outcome was different.”

Going to Pocklington changed Leonard’s life, but unlike his leadership rival, Anas Sarwar, who was criticised for sending his son to Hutchesons’ Grammar School (where he himself was educated), it left him with a deep-seated antipathy towards private education.

“The idea that people can use wealth to gain educational advantage is anathema to me,” he says. “I am wedded to the John Maclean idea of rising with your class not out of your class. Trying to improve the outcome for everyone is something that appeals to me rather than asking how you can fulfil people’s individual aspirations.”

It was at Pocklington that Leonard first became interested in the ideas of Tony Benn. Picture him, one Saturday morning at the Malton Woolworths buying his copy of Arguments For Democracy while other teenagers were spending their pocket money out on the latest chart-topper. “I suppose it did mark me out as quite unusual,” he says.

From there, he went on to study politics and economics at Stirling. He made a beeline for the Labour Club, only to find it was in the grip of Militant. Leonard loathed Militant’s “cult-like” approach and the bullying tactics it used to make people part with money. “It didn’t feel very Labour to me. It was all about the advancement of Militant rather than the advancement of working people,” he says.

But aren’t there parallels between Militant and Momentum? Leonard, who is wary of factions, is not a member of Momentum, but many of the people he has surrounded himself with – Neil Findlay, his chief of staff, Lesley Brennan, and shadow secretary for the eradication of poverty and inequality, Elaine Smith – belong to the Scottish offshoot, Campaign for Socialism.

“Militant was an overtly entryist organisation which was designed to take over control of the commanding heights of the Labour Party, to deselect MPs and insert Militant supporting members,” he says. “There are some elements in Momentum who have spoken about deselections, which I don’t think is very helpful, but in my experience, it’s nothing like as all-pervasive as Militant at its height. The Campaign for Socialism which, again, I have never been a member of, just seems to me to be a platform for ideas.”

At Stirling, Leonard met Jack McConnell, going on to share a flat with him after graduation. Those who knew him then say he craved his home comforts, cooking up traditional meals of meat, potatoes and two veg, while his flatmates ate carry-outs and went clubbing. He was also good-looking. It was not unknown for Labour club members canvassing on campus to spot his picture on a female student’s wall. “I don’t think you should exaggerate how many times that happened,” he laughs.

Leonard followed in McConnell’s footsteps, becoming student president in 1984 – the year of the miners’ strike – and remembers organising collections and standing on the occasional picket line. He got involved with local politics, and served as secretary of the district Labour Party, before going on to spend the next 25 years as a GMB organiser and assistant secretary of the STUC.

While the Blairites held sway, Leonard, who now lives in Paisley, was marginalised, but in May 2016, eight months after Corbyn became leader, he joined Holyrood as a list MSP. His decision to stand for the leadership less than 18 months later was motivated by a conviction that the Scottish Parliament (and the Scottish Government) had become complacent.

“The SNP have been quite timid on areas where I would have thought they would have been more progressive – land reform, for example,” he says. “And I don’t feel there has been enough urgency around the need to do things differently. Tory austerity could have been more directly challenged. There has been too much shrugging of shoulders. There needs to be a new forward-looking view of what the Scottish Parliament is for and what it can achieve.”

Leonard’s priorities include tackling under-performance in the NHS by removing private sector involvement and the housing crisis by building more council homes and cracking down on the private rented sector. Though this week’s Scottish conference in Dundee is likely to be dominated by Brexit, he also plans to talk about the challenge of automation and the crisis in social care.

But will Leonard be able to outflank the SNP on the left and win back traditional Labour voters? Does he have what it takes to follow in McConnell’s footsteps once again and become First Minister?

There are those who believe Leonard’s Englishness will be an obstacle. Although, in a recent interview, he accepted it was an issue for a minority of people, he takes umbrage at the idea that it’s of any real significance. After all, he points out, he has spent twice as many years in Scotland as in England, is married to a Scot, Karen, a fellow GMB organiser, and has chosen to make his home here.

Last weekend’s Six Nations rugby victory, however, demonstrated how his nationality could be problematic. Nicola Sturgeon was able to capitalise on the victory, drinking champagne from the Calcutta Cup, while Leonard was nowhere to be seen.

“I support Scotland in every game whether it’s rugby, football or cricket, the one exception being when they play England,” he says. “Then, my wife supports Scotland and I support England. Last weekend, she was absolutely delighted – jumping up and down – and I was saying: ‘Well, the best team won.’”

Such sporting triumphs happen only once in a blue moon and it’s Leonard’s policies that ought to count. But the way he plays down the impact of not being able to join in the mass celebrations suggests he is not quite in touch with modern politics. The same is true of social media. Leonard had to be dragged on to Twitter and hasn’t really got the hang of it. He has a hinterland and a sense of humour, but has not yet been able to project his personality in the way Sturgeon and Ruth Davidson do.

A more serious problem is his perceived unwillingness to take decisive action against elements that are tarnishing his party’s reputation. Asked if he has mended his relationship with Dugdale after her stint on I’m A Celebrity…, he insists a line has been drawn under the affair, adding: “What I have learned in my short time as leader is that there will always be people looking for other people to be hung out to dry.”

But Dugdale’s offence was trivial compared with some of those committed since he took office. Let’s start with MP Hugh Gaffney, who supported Leonard in the leadership election. Gaffney was reprimanded (but not suspended) after he made homophobic and racist comments at a Burns Supper. He was told to apologise to the communities he had offended and forced to undergo equality and diversity training.

“My overriding view is, if somebody displays bad behaviour, how do you stop them repeating it,” says Leonard. “In my opinion, that was an appropriate level of action to take and because he is on a warning, he will be subject to greater scrutiny.”

But given that Sarwar has been speaking out on the racist abuse he has been subjected to inside and outside the party, Leonard needs to be seen to be coming down hard on every infraction.

Then there’s gender equality. Leonard’s first tribunal as a GMB organiser was an equal pay case involving a head chef at the Rosyth dockyard and he is a long-time advocate of all-women shortlists. Yet some critics feel he has not come out strongly enough against the Labour councillors in Glasgow who spent £2.5m fighting equal pay claims, and making Smith shadow secretary for the eradication of poverty and inequality seems bizarre. Smith opposed same-sex marriage and recently had to rescind an invitation to Professor Priscilla Coleman – author of a much-criticised report linking abortion and mental health problems – to speak at Holyrood.

Leonard says he has already publicly stated that Labour owes the Glasgow City Council women an apology , but he stiffens at the mention of Smith’s name. “It has been made clear to Elaine that she needs to comply with the party’s policy on issues like a women’s right to choose,” is his less-than-ringing endorsement.

One party insider believes such statements are not enough. “Richard is very nice, but he doesn’t like to make enemies and is going to find it hard to keep people on the left in line. That’s going to be his downfall.”

On the other hand, he is empathetic and a good listener: qualities that might help him unify the party. “Richard is a serious guy,” a senior party figure says. “He has not taken this on just to hold Scottish Labour together for a couple for a years. He is thinking about how to create the circumstances in which he can win and what he needs to do be an effective First Minister.”

As we head over to Bell’s Bridge for photographs, Leonard tells me about his collection of trademark red scarves. The one he has with him today was a birthday present. McConnell’s former chief of staff Mike Donnelly knitted him another for Christmas. Does it not get a bit boring, constantly receiving them as gifts? “Oh, I can always do with a red scarf,” he says diplomatically.

From the bridge, we can see the Hydro where, the previous night, Weller chose to finish his show with Town Called Malice, that lament for urban decline. It was written about Woking in the late 70s/early 80s, but its description of “struggle after struggle, year after year” will resonate just as strongly with many Scots today.

Leonard is steeped in history of the Labour movement. But history is cyclical. He believes that, after 20 years of being out of fashion, his “radical” left-wing vision is just what the country needs. “I don’t consider myself to be a throwback at all,” he says. “My political ideas are in tune with the age we live in. They address the challenges of our times.”