THE resignation of Richard Leonard may have been a surprise, given that it is a few short months since he insisted he would fight any challenge to his leadership of Scottish Labour. But his belated decision that his position had become “a distraction” and that “it is in the best interests of the party” that he step aside is the correct one, though Labour now has the unenviable task of finding a new leader, direction and sense of purpose in the run-up to the Holyrood elections.

It may be argued that Mr Leonard stepped into unpromising political territory three years ago, that he was hamstrung by division in his own ranks, public perception of the leadership south of the border and by overarching political narratives largely outwith his control – Brexit, the way in which that in turn revived arguments for independence, and latterly the pandemic. Few who encountered him, including his opponents, doubted his fundamental decency.

But the fact remains that he failed to make an impact, either with the public, where his personal recognition was absurdly low, or on his party’s policies and tactics. In the last analysis, the task of any political leader is to win, and Labour’s numbers tell a dismal story.

The party, utterly dominant for the whole of the second half of the 20th century, has not only been overtaken by the Conservatives as the main opposition to the SNP Government, but on some polling attracts not much more than half of the support of the Tories. On the best showing, it is in the mid-teens, with the Government well over 50 per cent. In the European elections last May, Labour came fifth.

It is not just that a position this bad would have been unthinkable within fairly recent memory. It is the best the party can do against a Government that has been in power for more than 13 years – a period longer than the premierships of Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair – and when, even allowing for the SNP as a special case, any administration should expect widespread fatigue from voters, and spirited challenges to its record in office.

On the evidence of the polling and policies voters tend to favour, there ought to be, if not an outright majority, a very sizeable constituency for a moderately left-of-centre, social democratic party amongst Unionists, and even those flexible or agnostic on Scotland’s constitutional settlement. Labour should be monopolising that part of the electorate: the evidence is that it is hardly even appealing to it.

This is a huge problem for the party, but it is hardly less alarming for the general health of Scottish political discourse. Even the SNP’s admirers should expect that, after so long in office, their record be robustly tested. Deflecting awkward questions by criticising Westminster, when so many areas are devolved to Holyrood control, is something opposition parties should not let the Government get away with. There is no shortage of issues, from drugs policy to health to education to the state of the roads, that have a direct effect on the lives of Scottish voters, and where the Government’s record bears scrutiny and rigorous challenge.

Labour ought to be doing so. And it should be offering an alternative programme that, all things considered, might more readily chime with the Scottish electorate than that offered by the Conservatives. The Tories may have a natural ceiling of support, and be hampered by antipathy to their party’s policies at Westminster from Scottish voters: Labour has no such excuse.

If the SNP, understandably, likes to concentrate on the abstract potential benefits of independence, their opposition should be avoiding that ground; at best a distraction and at worst a trap. Instead, they should be drilling down on the realities of the Government’s record in office and the effects of its policies on voters’ everyday lives. It is the obvious tactical position, and one that should offer huge scope for Labour to rebuild and prosper. But it will require realism, leadership, and a concentration on robust challenges and practical alternatives – so far in short supply.