THE leaked Scottish Labour membership figures inevitably raise an awkward question for party leader Richard Leonard. If you cannot motivate your own troops, what chance is there of inspiring voters?

Losing nearly 5,000 members in one year - around 20% of the total - cannot be put down to carelessness and looks like neglect.

However, there are mitigating circumstances. In the 2017 leadership contest, the political machine of defeated candidate Anas Sarwar was energetic in its recruitment of thousands of new members. Lo and behold, it has transpired that the commitment of many of these sign-ups was of a fleeting nature. This is clearly a factor behind the numbers.

But a membership fall in every constituency Labour party cannot solely be attributed to short-termers who only joined so they could vote for Sarwar. The Scottish party’s deference to Jeremy Corbyn on Brexit, as well as the sluggish response to the anti-semitism row, are also in the mix. More widely the reduction reflects a growing frustration about the lack of progress - on policy and in the polls - made by Leonard.

The irony is that it is not impossible for Leonard to become the next First Minister. Such an outcome requires two things to happen: the independence parties would need to lose their majority; and Labour would have to come ahead of the Tories. In this scenario, it is not implausible to imagine the Tories and Lib Dems backing Leonard because it would end Nicola Sturgeon’s political career.

Leonard’s troubled leadership, of which falling membership is one part, means that this outcome seems remote. The 2021 Holyrood election looks certain to become a duel between Sturgeon and Ruth Davidson on a second independence referendum. The focus is unlikely to be on the gangly bloke with a red rosette who is trying to talk about trains.

His biggest challenge is raising a profile that is not so much low as languishing on the sea bed. When Leonard succeeded Kezia Dugdale, he was pitted against party leaders who had fought countless elections and referenda. Voters refer to his opponents by their first names, but few people outside the political bubble know who he is.

Leonard's best moment was his conference speech in Dundee. Heartfelt and emotional, he carved out a convincing back story as a fighter for ordinary people, particularly low paid women. Since then, nada. His backers give the impression that the media is something to be tolerated, rather than a powerful tool to reach voters. He would struggle to be recognised in his own street.

Another impediment is that his supporters come across as devoted members of the Corbyn Appreciation Society. Putting “JC” in Downing Street is the priority, not installing Leonard in Bute House. Whether it is responding to anti-semitism allegations, or commenting on Brexit, Team Leonard is focused on not offending the Leader of the Opposition's Office (LOTO).

An argument can also be made that Leonard is appealing to too narrow a voter base to win an election. Scottish Labour wants a crackdown on zero hour contracts, a boost to the living wage, and an enhanced role for the trade unions, all of which would be fully in keeping with the party’s values. However, most employees have contractual working hours, earn above £7.83 an hour and are not in a union. Leonard’s message to the latter group seems to be to hand them an application form to join Unite.

Leonard faces the same dilemma on domestic policy as every one of his predecessors on both sides of the border. While people join Labour because they are passionate about social justice, voters are not so bothered. As former Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett once pointed out, you cannot put together an electoral majority based on the “disadvantaged, discriminated against and dispossessed”. Redistribution needs to be couched within a broader economic message of growth and prosperity.

Scottish Labour gives the impression of being a party in love with the past. Mentioning Mary Barbour and Nye Bevan may attract cheers at half-empty CLP meetings, but the same names would be met with a shoulder shrug by the average voter. If you stopped 100 people on Leith Walk and asked them who Keir Hardie was, most folk would think he used to play for Hibs.

Embracing the future also requires adopting political language that is in tune with the needs of the twenty-first century. Leonard talks about helping the “working class”, but some of the people Labour views as being part of this category don’t self-define in this way. Even if they did, it is far from clear whether it would influence their voting behaviour. Fourteen months after his leadership victory, Leonard is in danger of appealing to the few, not the many.