Oh Jeremy Corbyn, your takeover of Labour is all but complete. Left-winger Richard Leonard has triumphed in the Scottish Labour leadership, defeating moderate rival Anas Sarwar. The Yorkshireman and former GMB official becomes the party’s sixth leader in ten years and takes over from Kezia Dugdale, who abruptly quit the post in August for the backbenches and Bush Tucker Trials.
The outcome, announced at Glasgow’s Science Centre this morning, was hardly surprising. Sarwar’s campaign was arguably doomed from the start. Outwardly, he seemed like a fresh face to take Scottish Labour forward — young, articulate, media-savvy — but he was dogged by questions about his shareholdings, a family firm which didn’t pay the living wage, and the decision to send his children to private school. The larger problem, though, was the man himself. Whatever his presentational qualities, Sarwar has never given the impression of believing in anything other than himself. He is every insult the SNP threw at Jim Murphy, only true.
Before the campaign started Leonard was a relative unknown, which probably helped when pitted against the scion of the Sarwar dynasty. (Anas’s father, Mohammed, was Britain’s first Muslim MP and remains a well-connected figure of influence.) Leonard is not really a Corbynista — he had heard of socialism before The Canary came along — but he is firmly on the Left of the party. His appeal reached far beyond that base, however, and centrist activists and members respect and even like him. He is a talker, not a shouter.
Still, the past three months have seen Scottish Labour locked in its bitterest leadership race in memory. This was despite there being very little to differentiate Leonard and Sarwar in policy terms — both wanted to raise taxes and increase spending. The source of the acrimony was personal — and personnel. Leonard was seen as a good guy surrounded by unlikeable people and Sarwar as an unlikeable person surrounded by good guys. Even so, Leonard’s victory must also be counted as a win for the hard-Left, a faction which he doesn’t quite belong to but is close to in philosophical outlook. Those who once scorned New Labour spin and strategy have mastered it with alacrity.
Leonard’s priorities will be reuniting a bruised and ill-tempered rank-and-file, positioning the party against both the SNP and the Tories, and convincing Scots that he is a First Minister in waiting. Unity should be easy enough. Scottish Labour are best understood as a mafia that decided to go into politics. They scheme constantly, war regularly, but are always brought together by sentiment and loyalty.
The more pressing question is how they handle opposition to two governments. The Nationalist outfit at Holyrood has taken fright over Jeremy Corbyn’s electoral performance, shifting their talk-Left-keep-centre strategy to one of talking Left and possibly even acting a little Left too. Nicola Sturgeon is currently toying with the idea of using the Scottish Parliament’s extensive powers to raise income taxes. Leonard’s triumph is the worst of all worlds for her. He is a social democrat all year round, not just at Scottish TUC conferences, and the SNP leader will face calls from her grassroots to break more radical ground to undercut Leonard’s appeal. That runs counter to her instincts but if Scottish Labour, already showing improvement in the polls, gets a sustained bump from its new leader, she may not have a choice.
Where she has a significant advantage over Leonard is name recognition. He has come from obscurity to the leadership of his party in a single stroke. He will have to get more comfortable with media appearances and find a style of questioning at First Minister’s Questions that is assertive without looking like a bloke hectoring a strong woman. His early media hits will be dominated by questions about former deputy leader Alex Rowley, suspended by the party amid allegations about his personal behaviour towards an ex-girlfriend, and ex-leader Kezia Dugdale, who has raised the eyebrows and voices of colleagues by jetting off to Australia to appear in I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here.
Leonard will also have to deal with the constitutional question in a way that puts the matter to rest (at least until Nicola Sturgeon next powers up the grievance machine). Labour were wiped out at Westminster because they let the SNP out-Scotland them and shunted to third place at Holyrood because they let the Tories out-Yoon them. They can’t embrace independence — it would put them on the wrong side of public opinion and render the pains and losses of the last three years pointless — and nor can they park their tanks on Ruth Davidson’s lawn. There’s already a tank there with a giant Union Jack sticking out of it. Their best bet is to be pragmatic: the Union is not what gets Labour out of bed in the morning but the UK state is still the most reliable mechanism for redistributing wealth and safeguarding Scotland’s security. Sympathetic nonchalance would keep as many people as possible happy.
A Leonard leadership is, alas, good news for Jeremy Corbyn. It should reduce the friction between the UK and Scottish parties seen under Dugdale and give Labour’s opponents less opportunity to exploit divisions. Still, those around Corbyn should be wary of trying to run the Pictish party from Westminster. Scottish Labour now enjoys a similar level of autonomy as the Scottish Tories and will guard it jealously. The party at Holyrood understands the Scottish electoral landscape and will expect to continue making its own choices and even, where necessary, taking a distinctive line from that taken down south. For Jeremy Corbyn, though, this is yet another sign that his worldview is now the entrenched mainstream of the Labour Party.