'A Bold and Radical Shift': Richard Leonard and Scottish Labour

by Lauren Gilmour

It has been a turbulent decade for the Scottish Labour Party. Since 2007, the party has gone from being the dominant force in Scottish politics to being the third party, behind the Conservatives. This article comes at a time when Scottish Labour is at a crossroads and it is once again tasked with choosing the direction it goes in.

In choosing Richard Leonard in the upcoming leadership election, Scottish Labour would break away from the idea that workers are constituents to be protected from the worst excesses of predatory capitalism and move towards the idea that they can be active agents of change. This is the major shift that the Scottish Labour Party needs and not simply the bland protectionism that is being offered by Leonard's opponents. A Richard Leonard-led Scottish Labour Party would be a victory for the left; not just in Scotland, but across Britain too.

Who is Richard Leonard?

A representative of the Central Scotland region, Leonard has been a Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) for just over a year. Before he announced his candidacy for the leadership of Scottish Labour, he did not even possess a Twitter account. Outwith the Labour and trade union movement, he has a relatively low profile. This may traditionally be seen as a detriment, but with a reputation as tarnished as that of Scottish Labour, having a low profile may be seen as a benefit.

For over twenty years, Leonard has been a trade union organiser: his most recent position before becoming an MSP was political officer for GMB Scotland . He has been involved in a variety of causes of the left over the years and is considered to be an intellectual and ideological heavyweight within the Scottish left. A protégé of communist academic John Foster, Richard Leonard has played an important role within the left in Scotland, often at crucial times in its recent history.

Leonard is a strong performer when it comes to policy, industrial strategy and economic change. His politics centre on economic, social and political transformation. Throughout the Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014, he was fiercely anti-nationalist and was not involved with the jingoistic and deeply conservative Better Together campaign, preferring instead to talk about returning power to the people:

“Let me start with a gentle reminder. Our goal in this movement is not and has never been about shifting power from one parliament and one set of politicians to another. Our goal is about shifting power from those who own the wealth in this country back to those, who through their hard work and endeavour create the wealth in this country.”[1]

Leonard’s views (shared by others) were, at the time, sadly overlooked in favour of the overtly British nationalist messages that the Better Together campaign was spinning. Had the Scottish Labour Party run its own distinct campaign in the independence referendum, then perhaps it would not be in a situation today where it has only 7 MPs in Westminster.

Throughout his tenure as an MSP, however, Leonard has been far more cautious. He has been a quiet supporter of Jeremy Corbyn throughout his term so far, signing an open letter in support of him, along with Neil Findlay, Elaine Smith and Alex Rowley, but has rarely made a show of it. He has been reluctant to associate himself with the left-wing Campaign for Socialism (CfS) group, despite their growing influence and support within the party.

Leonard is, however, firmly committed to the ideas, policies and ideology of the left, and to running as the left’s candidate. He would bring a sense of optimism and change to a party that has been doing the same things for too long and yet expecting different results.

How can Leonard win?

The Labour Left in Scotland has been revitalised and rejuvenated. This process began in late 2014, where the left-wing group Campaign For Socialism (CfS) played a high profile role in organising MSP Neil Findlay's Scottish Labour Leadership election against Jim Murphy. Whilst Findlay did not win, his campaign brought together a group of young activists who were inspired to start a movement campaigning for change within the youth wings of Scottish Labour (and beyond), now known as Scottish Labour Young Socialists. His campaign also built the foundations of a revitalised left that, in 2015, began winning internal political positions such as the National Policy Forum slate. For the first time in many years, a left-wing majority made up the Scottish Young Labour executive committee. The Corbyn campaign in 2015 (and 2016) also brought back many people on the left who had previously felt abandoned by the Labour Party.

Richard Leonard’s campaign is taking on the Scottish Labour establishment and machine. However, there is still a very good chance that he could win; according to the bookies; he is the current favourite. His leadership will be just that: leadership. It will focus on radical and bold ideas, including public ownership, industrial strategy, investing in public services and ending austerity. These, he stated in a Sunday Mail article earlier this month, are not ideas he has adopted for current convenience, but beliefs he has held throughout his time in the labour movement:

“These are not new ideas to me. They brought me into the Scottish Labour Party over 30 years ago and guided my work as a trade union organiser across Scotland for 20 years.”

Leonard’s campaign, much like Corbyn’s in 2015, has started with little more than a website and a Twitter account. For many, this is the moment they have been waiting for. The 2013 Collins Review infamously implemented a system of electing a Labour leader that was intended to stop a left-wing candidate from even getting on the ballot, let alone winning the entire contest. But the opposite outcome was ultimately delivered due to the creation of the affiliated and registered supporters categories, enabling people to sign up for £3 to get a vote in the leadership election. While Corbyn would have won the contest without this quirk, it was registered and affiliated supporters that turned his leadership victory into a landslide, , handing him close to 60% of first preference votes.

The same thing could theoretically be replicated in Scotland, if the same drive and ambition to secure a leader who will deliver a change in direction exists. Like Richard Leonard, we must be audacious in our drive to win this leadership contest. From stalls to sign up people in the street, to social media campaigns targeting the young people who voted Labour for the first time in this year’s general election, we must ensure that we have a comfortable majority of people who want a new kind of politics reflected in the Scottish Labour Party.

A Leonard-led Party

For too long, the Scottish Labour leadership has focused on endless 'gotchas' directed at the SNP. Their political arguments have lacked substance. To start reigniting the interest and the trust of Scotland, Scottish Labour must position itself as a genuine alternative to the SNP. Richard Leonard's political outlook will deliver this much-needed departure from the bland, centrist, social democracy that has characterised both the SNP and the Scottish Labour Party since devolution. Instead he will transform the Scottish Labour Party into a party that talks about economic and social injustice, and how that can be changed. Richard Leonard will implement a far more ambitious industrial strategy than the current leadership or the Scottish government. This would bring much-needed jobs and investment to Scotland.

The crucial difference between a Sarwar-led Scottish Labour Party and a Leonard-led party is their position in relation to workers’ relationship to capital. This is the fundamental shift that needs to take place within the Scottish Labour Party. Leonard offers a bold and radical shift away from social democratic protectionism, towards a parliament that puts power back in the hands of the people. If the members of Scottish Labour choose to put their faith in Richard Leonard as leader, it will be the another step towards an essential left-wing shift within the party.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons


  1. http://redpaper.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/RedPaperLabourVoicesMay2013_A4.pdf ↩︎


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