What we learned from the Scottish Labour leadership hustings

Labour members gathered in Glasgow last night to quiz the two men hoping to become the next party leader in Scotland. But it was the questions that went unasked that dominated reports from the event.

Richard Leonard and Anas Sarwar at the Scottish Labour hustings in Glasgow. Picture: John Devlin/TSPL
Richard Leonard and Anas Sarwar at the Scottish Labour hustings in Glasgow. Picture: John Devlin/TSPL

When chair Linda Stewart announced there should be no questions “about a candidate’s marital status, domestic circumstances, nor pertaining to the candidates’ financial arrangements” there were more than a few raised eyebrows among the 200 people gathered.

The morning news agenda was driven by Anas Sarwar’s interview with BBC Scotland, in which the MSP was forced to defend his family business for not paying the real living wage.

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His team later said they were not aware of the format for the hustings until shortly before it began, and had not asked for financial questions to be restricted.

The hour-long Q&A was instead given over to familiar Labour subjects such as increasing public spending and attacking the SNP Government.

Relations between Leonard and Sarwar were cordial - both took time to praise the other’s work. They each emphasised their desire to introduce “progressive taxation” at Holyrood to increase funding for the NHS and education. Both described themselves as proud socialists.

Whoever is announced as leader in November can be expected to campaign from the left-wing.

But one issue laid bare the splits between the two.

The Corbyn effect

Leonard, a left-winger first elected in 2016, is a big fan of Jeremy Corbyn. He emphasised his loyalty to the UK leader at every opportunity during the hour-long hustings.

Sarwar, in contrast, was one of 13 MSPs who last year signed a letter calling on Corbyn to consider his position during a failed plot by MPs to oust him. While Sarwar is now fully signed up to Team Jez, he can’t compete with Leonard’s JC credentials.

In response to a question on Mr Corbyn, Leonard said: “I was pleased to stand on a platform last summer in support of Jeremy Corbyn, because when all those MPs decided to abstain on severe social security benefits to some of our most vulnerable people in society, I was ashamed.

“Jeremy Corbyn voted against those cuts and that marked him out as the kind of kind of person who should be leading this Labour party.

“Sometimes saying those kinds of things makes me unpopular but I’ve said always said those kinds of things for 30 years

“If you want consistency, if you want somebody who’s been proud to call themselves a democratic socialist, then vote for me as leadership candidate.”

The unity candidate

While Leonard has the support of several trade unions - including Unite, the largest in Scotland - but former MP Sarwar has the advantage of being backed by the majority of Scottish Labour MSPs. He stressed he was the candidate to bring the party together north of the border and win the Holyrood elections in 2021.

“I’m standing because I believe I am the candidate who can unite our party and help deliver a Labour government across the UK and Jeremy Corbyn as our next Prime Minister.

“But helping to elect a UK Labour government is not the only job for a Scottish Labour leader – it is also to persuade the people of Scotland that a Scottish Labour Government and a Scottish Labour First Minister matter too.

“Ten years of constitutional obsession has left Scotland a more divided and more unequal nation.

“Look at where we’re standing today. Nicola Sturgeon is an MSP in this city. She is the First Minister of Scotland. And yet she has presided over a cut of £400million from our communities.

“Do you know that 50 per cent of all children who live in this city are deprived? That is a national disgrace.

“Nicola Sturgeon has the power to do something about it, but deliberately chooses not to.

“That’s why this contest can’t just be about electing a Scottish Labour leader, it has to be about electing the next Labour First Minister of Scotland.”