WORDS like “crisis” and “disaster” are overused in politics, but they are accurate descriptions of the grave situation facing the Scottish Labour party.

Labour, which used to glide through elections north of the border, has watched its vote share fall in every Holyrood poll since 1999. It won nearly 40% twenty years ago; in 2016, Labour collapsed to 19%.

Then Richard Leonard took over as leader and his party crumbled to 9% at last month’s European election. Within days, MSPs Neil Findlay and Daniel Johnson quit the shadow cabinet. Scottish Labour is on life-support.

In an interview with the Herald on Sunday, Leonard, the party’s first left-wing leader, reflected on Scottish Labour’s worst ever result, spoke candidly about the mistakes that were made during the campaign, and insisted he is staying on.

“I am absolutely clear that I have got no intention of stepping down. I am going to lead the Scottish Labour party into the elections of 2021,” he says, in a meeting room in the party’s Glasgow headquarters.

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Leonard was quick to accept last week that his party’s European election strategy had failed. Even though Scotland voted Remain in the Brexit referendum, Leonard had echoed Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘soft Brexit’ message that was designed to appeal to both sides in the EU debate. He succeeded only in haemorrhaging votes to the SNP and the Lib Dems.

Post-drubbing, he has changed his mind and positioned his party as being unequivocally pro-Remain. He also says he will campaign around Scotland for the UK to stay in the EU.

However, it is important to understand some of the root causes of why his European campaign bombed. The SNP’s election communication included a picture of Nicola Sturgeon. The Scottish Tories put Ruth Davidson front and centre of their literature. Scottish Labour’s main leaflet, by contrast, had a picture of Corbyn. Leonard was nowhere to be seen.

“I’ve had conversations with Mark Drakeford, the First Minister of Wales, and we both agree that that was a mistake, because his picture wasn’t on the leaflet in Wales either,” he says.

Given that one of Leonard’s main problems is a low profile, such a decision by the UK party seems unforgivable. But it could have been even worse.

“The leaflet that you describe originally had a text which didn’t recognise that we’ve got different challenges facing public services in Scotland. And so we had to re-write the text,” Leonard says.

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I put it to him that the picture decision was made by Corbyn’s office, with the finger of suspicion being pointed at communications director Seamus Milne.

“I wasn’t involved in the negotiations about that,” he says, weakly.

This reply sums up the last twenty years of Scottish Labour. If Leonard is the leader of an autonomous party, he should not have to “negotiate” to have his face on his own party’s leaflet. Little wonder critics hurl the 'branch office' jibe at him.

“I accept that, as much as possible, the election should have been used as a platform to promote me,” he says.


Leonard and Corbyn are political allies, but the Scottish Labour leader’s colleagues believe the pair are too close. Colin Smyth, a member of Leonard’s shadow cabinet, said last week that he had to become his “own man”. Is Smyth correct?

“I don’t accept this narrative that I am simply there as Jeremy Corbyn’s man in Scotland,” he says. “I accept that I need to present myself, and make it absolutely clear, that there is a distinctive Scottish Labour party position on things.”

He also believes that Scottish Labour may need more autonomy: “There is still work that needs to be done, some battles that need to be re-fought, to establish the importance of having a distinctive Scottish Labour presentation to the people of Scotland.”

An area of potential reform is party discipline. One racism case relating to a Scottish member has dragged on for over eighteen months, but the investigation is handled at a UK level. Leonard is sympathetic to this changing:

“There has been a debate about whether the current disciplinary process inside the Labour party...is fit for purpose. And I think that there is a case to be examined around that.”

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However, Leonard’s difficulties as leader did not start with the European election campaign. After he defeated moderate MSP Anas Sarwar to succeed Kezia Dugdale in 2017, his allies believe he has been undermined by a relentless series of briefings, leaks and sniping.

“Of course I get frustrated when things are leaked, but in the end we’ve got to try and focus as a party, not on ourselves, but on all those people, in all those communities, that need a Labour Government,” he says.

“The Scottish Labour party will only succeed when we are outward looking and when we talk about the things that are important to the people we need to appeal to.”

Edinburgh South MP Ian Murray, a leading Corbyn critic, recently wrote on WhatsApp that Scottish Labour is full of “thugs and incompetents”. It was then leaked. What did Leonard think of these comments?

“First of all, I dismiss the allegation. And, secondly, I just don’t think it is constructive or helpful.”

He also points out that Murray is a member of Labour’s governing Scottish Executive committee (SEC):

“He is part of the leadership of the Scottish Labour party. If he’s got views, he should express them, but he should express them in a more measured way.”

Sarwar, who Leonard sacked from his shadow cabinet last year, also piped up with an analysis of the party’s woes last week. The Glasgow MSP said the leadership “must decide whether they speak for a clique or faction”, or “whether they speak for all of our party”.

Leonard does not appear impressed with his colleague’s comments: “I don’t recognise the description that the Scottish Labour party is some kind of clique. We are a party which embraces all the traditions of the Labour movement.”

I ask if he believes Sarwar was loyal to him when he served in the shadow cabinet:

“He was somebody who, I think, performed well in the Parliament, but when the year was up I decided to review the shadow cabinet and had a reshuffle.” That is code for 'no'.


Picture: Leonard and Sarwar

Even against the backdrop of last week’s catastrophe, Leonard is optimistic about his party’s future. His recent conference speech contained the outlines of a new offering on constitutional change. He is sympathetic to employment law being devolved to Holyrood, which would allow MSPs to set a £10 an hour minimum wage and scrap Tory trade union legislation.

Curiously, however, he seems to talk about the devolution of extra powers in the context of a post-Brexit UK, which since last week is an outcome he says he is opposing:

“If Brexit were to happen, then areas of decision-making that currently rest with a Commission in Brussels, a European Parliament that convenes in plenary session in Strasbourg, that’s subject to, in the end, decision-making by a Council of Ministers, and is overseen by a European Court of Justice….if we withdraw from the European Union we will no longer be part of these institutions. So we need to consider where those powers will now rest.” I know what he means, but his form of words has a Bennite ring.

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A looming row is over the selection of Labour candidates for Holyrood. A majority of his MSPs voted for Sarwar and group meetings are said to be brutal. Some of Leonard’s allies want the party’s SEC, which has a left wing majority, to hand pick some of the candidates. Such a move could lead to a cull of serving MSPs and a civil war.

Would he be in favour of the SEC being able to rank some of the candidates, rather than members? “That will be up to the SEC,” comes the reply.

I repeat the question and he again defers to the SEC. He is clearly thinking about it. “In each different Scottish Parliament election, from 1999 onwards, there has been a different system employed for selecting people for the List. So we shall see,” he says. I half expect him to wink at me at this point.

Leonard, perhaps improbably for a man who has just led his party to fifth place, is focused on coming first at the next Holyrood election. He has a dig at predecessors who have racked up a tally of defeats.

“One of my criticisms of the Scottish Labour party in times past has been that our ambition was simply to be a strong opposition. If we don’t believe in ourselves, why should we expect anybody else to believe in us and vote for us?”

He adds: “There is no reason why Scottish Labour can’t win those elections in 2021, because we will be offering the most radical programme of economic, social and environmental change in the history of devolution.”

His problem will be convincing the voters. Some Labour policies are undoubtedly popular, but the same judgement cannot be made of his party.

“People may have lost their faith, or seen their faith diminished, in the Labour party,” he concedes. “But I don’t think their faith has diminished in the values of the Labour party. My job is to make the Scottish Labour party the vehicle for the realisation of those hopes.”