Richard Leonard MSP: why did Scottish Labour leader resign, what were his policies, and why was he criticised?

Nicola Sturgeon and Keir Starmer have spoken out on Leonard’s resignation
Leonard felt his leadership was becoming a distraction from Labour's policies (Picture: Getty Images)Leonard felt his leadership was becoming a distraction from Labour's policies (Picture: Getty Images)
Leonard felt his leadership was becoming a distraction from Labour's policies (Picture: Getty Images)

Labour leader Richard Leonard has resigned with immediate effect from his position, less than four months before the Scottish parliamentary elections.

He was elected leader in 2017, following the resignation of his predecessor Kezia Dugdale, beating Anas Sarwar in the leadership battle.

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So, why has he resigned? And why was he criticised as Scottish Labour leader? This is what you need to know

Who is Richard Leonard?

Leonard is the list member of the Scottish Parliament for Central Scotland, and was the leader of Scottish Labour from 2017 to 2021.

He grew up in Yorkshire before moving to Scotland to study politics and economics at the University of Stirling in the 1980s.

59-year-old Leonard has a background in trade unions, spending 20 years as an industrial organiser for GMB Scotland - supporting women, apprentices and young people in low income jobs.

His wife, Karen, whom he has a son and step daughter with, is also a GMB organiser.

He was the chairman of the Scottish Labour party from 2002 to 2003, and first stood for election to the Scottish Parliament in 2011, but was not elected until 2016.

What were his policies?

Throughout his political career, Leonard has profoundly opposed the war on Iraq, marching against the war and voicing his disgust over the bombing of Baghdad.

He subsequently supported Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in 2016 - who also strongly opposed the war - but later denied his support for the UK Labour leader, stating: “I'm too long in the tooth to be a Corbynista.”

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A long-term member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), he also opposes Trident and nuclear weapons.

Leonard described himself during the 2019 UK election as a “"socialist, democrat and internationalist" - suggesting he was not in favour of Brexit. This was in spite of his earlier campaigning in 2016, where he stated he would support a soft-Brexit approach.

In line with the UK Labour party, Leonard opposes a second Scottish referendum and believes this would cause greater damage to Scotland than leaving the EU.

He is in favour of nationalising the railway and public transport, offering greater powers to trade unions and shorter working weeks.

Why did Leonard resign?

On 14 January, Leonard issued a resignation letter, in which he cited “ speculation about my leadership” and what it “does to our ability to get Labour’s message across”, stating his failings as a leader had served as a “distraction”.

He continued: “I have come to the conclusion it is in the best interests of the party that I step aside as leader of Scottish Labour with immediate effect. This was not an easy decision, but after three years I feel it is the right one for me and for the party.”

He also told how he felt the UK and Scottish government had mishandled their response to the coronavirus pandemic - stating the vaccination roll out should be a 24/7 operation.

He concluded: “I retain my faith in the Labour Party as the party that offers hope to people and that remains the only vehicle for the realisation of that hope.”

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Leonard added he would continue as an MSP and stand in the upcoming May Scottish Parliament elections, fighting for “Labour’s vision of a better future in a democratic economy and a socialist society.”

It has been speculated that Labour leader and deputy, Sir Keir Starmer and Angela Raynor called for him to quit.

Following Leonard’s resignation, Neil Findlay told BBC’s The Nine: “Richard Leonard has been undermined from the very beginning by people from the Labour Party.”

Why has he been criticised ?

Leonard has received much criticism from within his own party, as well as from his opposers.

His critics have described him as a “marxist” and have said he is on the hard-left. Leonard has admitted his policies support a new “Scottish radicalism”.

Recently, he was widely criticised for voting against the Brexit deal, while his colleagues in Westminster voted in favour of it.

He also faced embarrassment when he called on the Scottish Government to publish the evidence behind Scotland’s Covid lockdown rules, when they had already done so.

Leonard has a history of changing his mind over policies, leaving the Scottish electorate confused about where his party stands.

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He changed from supporting a soft Brexit to opposing Brexit, which ultimately led to fellow Labour MSP Neil Findlay resigning from Leonard’s cabinet and stating he would retire from his role as an MSP in the 2021 elections.

Labour MP Ian Murray also referred to the Scottish leadership as “full of thugs and incompetents" in leaked WhatsApp messages, after Leonard’s party pulled funding to support a defamation case of his predecessor, Kezia Dugdale, which the party previously stated wouldn’t happen.

Dudgale resigned as an MSP shortly after Labour’s decision.

He then faced immense criticism from Dugdale’s former Labour colleagues and fellow MSPs, which led to a reshuffle of the cabinet/

During the reshuffle, Leonard cut long-standing MSP Jackie Baillie as Labour Spokesperson for Economy, Fair Work and Jobs, and Anas Sarwar, a qualified dentist, from his role as Health spokesperson.

His lack of success in elections also led to questions over his ability to lead. Leonard received criticism from Labour members, following an SNP landslide in the 2017 general election, for failing to hold onto Labour MPs seats. He apologised and admitted failing to stop an “SNP juggernaut”.

How have Scottish politicians responded to Leonard’s resignation?

Despite being highly criticised during his time as leader, Leonard’s strongest opposers and allies were largely kind to him following his departure.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer released a statement in which he said: “Richard has led Scottish Labour through one of the most challenging and difficult periods in our country’s history, including a general election and the pandemic.

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“Even from opposition he has achieved a considerable amount for which he should be very proud.

"He has done so with dedication to the values of our movement.

“I wish Richard the very best for the future as one of our MSPs and know that he will continue to play an important role in Scottish Labour.”

Former leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson, shared on Twitter: “When I stepped down in August 2019, I discovered that political resignations are odd things, like reading obituaries when you are still alive.

“Whatever else is written about Richard, I have to say I always found him a thoroughly decent man and a committed campaigner.”

While Nicola Sturgeon commented: “Despite our political differences, I’ve always liked Richard Leonard. He is a decent guy and I wish him well for the future.”

Corbyn’s deputy, John McDonnell MP wrote: “I am saddened Richard Leonard has stood down as leader of the Scottish Labour Party and I wish this very decent man and devoted socialist all the best for the future.

“It is clear from the emerging media reports that questions need to be answered about how this was brought about.”