Richard Leonard vows: Time to drop Scottish independence dogfight

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard says the party will focus on social, economic and environmental issues. Photograph: John Devlin
Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard says the party will focus on social, economic and environmental issues. Photograph: John Devlin
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Labour leader Richard Leonard says he can win the 2021 Holyrood elections and become First Minister with a campaign focused on radical “economic and social” polices – not another independence dogfight.

The party will not “repeat the mistake” of the last election when constitutional wrangling was deemed to have cost seats, Leonard said, as the party prepares to meet in Dundee this week for its spring conference.

The Scottish leader says it will mark the start of Labour’s manifesto for the next Holyrood taking shape, spearheaded by a wealth tax and a radical approach to public ownership of industry.

It comes amid growing speculation Nicola Sturgeon may make the right to hold an independence referendum the cornerstone of the 2021 Holyrood vote if, as expected, the UK government rejects her demands to hold a second vote on leaving the UK.

As Scotland marks 20 years of devolution, Leonard says it is time to address the “unfinished business” of the Scottish Parliament, including shortcomings over land reform and industrial strategy.

Labour gathers at Dundee’s Caird Hall during a febrile time in UK politics. It comes a week before the Commons again votes on the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal, with Labour throwing its support behind a People’s Vote on the final agreement. The party has also been stung by the defection of eight MPs.

Leonard, 57, told Scotland on Sunday the party was meeting at an “interesting time” in British politics.

But he said: “We’re trying to look beyond that as well because in the end our aim as a party is to be ready and electable in 2021 for the Scottish Parliament elections. So for us that’s about beginning the development of our policy offer to people for 2021. And so we’re examining measures like a wealth tax option, we’re looking at new forms of public ownership and what that might look like. We’re looking at significant reforms to housing provision, both in house building and ideas like co-operatives, as well as what more we can do to regulate the private rented sector.

“We’re keen to develop what we hope will be the most radical economic and social programme to be put before the people of Scotland in those 2021 Scottish Parliament elections.”

It is just over a decade since Labour was seen as the natural party of government in Scotland. But the loss of power at Holyrood in 2007 to the SNP was followed by a disastrous general election showing in 2015 when it was left with one seat in Scotland.

A revival of sorts saw the party surprisingly gain five seats in the 2017 snap UK election.

Leonard, who hails from Yorkshire and moved to Scotland in the 1980s to study in Stirling, said he would not remain silent on the constitutional issue and backed a more federal UK. But he said he believed a focus on the fight against austerity and protecting jobs which impact on Scots’ everyday lives could be the key to success in two years at the polls.

“I wouldn’t have stood for leader of the Labour party if I didn’t think we could win these elections and if I didn’t think I could be the First Minister of Scotland,” he said.

“I am clear that that is our goal and I’m clear it is possible.”

He added: “There is an analysis which exists which says one of the reasons we didn’t make enough of a breakthrough in the general election in 2017 in Scotland was because we got bogged down too much on constitutional issues and we didn’t speak enough about these broader social and economic and environmental issues. So we’re determined not to repeat that mistake.”

The arrival of new tax powers at Holyrood has prompted a new debate in Scotland as the SNP increased income tax on high and middle earners, although most Scots – about 55 per cent – will see a marginal deduction in taxes.

Leonard wants a more radical approach and will place his plans for a new wealth tax, a 1 per cent levy on the richest 10 per cent of Scots, at the heart of his Holyrood campaign for 2021. The party has also called for the 46p top rate to start on salaries of more than £60,000, while a new 50p top rate would be created for those earning more than £100,000.

“There’s going to have to be some pretty radical thinking about how we provide the services that an ageing population will be reliant on,” Leonard said.

“So that’s about having a once-in-a-generation discussion about how we want to provide services.”

And despite recent divisions within Labour over Brexit and anti-Semitism, he insists the radical left-wing approach that swept himself and Jeremy Corbyn into their leadership roles remains vibrant.

“We’re going through a cycle where disillusionment with that neo-liberal model is growing and growing, and I think there will be a battle to see what takes its place,” he said.

“I’m keen to make sure that the ideas of the Labour party, the ideas of more democracy in the economy, more accountability in the economy, are ones that prevail.”

Delegates will debate Brexit at the conference next Sunday and are likely to back a motion supporting a People’s Vote in line with broader party policy. Although Leonard would 
still prefer a general election, he accepts a second referendum may be the only way to break the Westminster impasse.

In that event, he said: “My campaigning energies would be expended, as they were in 2016, on campaigning for Remain.”

Leonard, a former trade union leader, was part of the campaign for a Scottish Parliament in the 1980s. He said the 20th anniversary this year would provide an opportunity to look at its “unfinished business”.

“We want to revisit land reform as an issue to see if there isn’t more that can be done to move that on, because I think it’s stagnated,” he said.