Yesterday afternoon, Richard Leonard announced that he was stepping down as leader of the Scottish Labour Party. (The announcement carefully timed to avoid topping ‘Red, White, and Blue’, no doubt.)
An ally of Jeremy Corbyn, there has been something of Admiral Kolchak about Leonard’s increasingly forlorn attempts to maintain a redoubt for Labour’s left-most wing. He actually fought off a challenge as recently as September, but his position had apparently become unsustainable.
LabourList has a useful summary of what went on behind the scenes. Apparently high net-worth donors were threatening to withhold support from the party unless there was a change in leadership. More significant, however, was the fact that “the balance of factional power on the Scottish executive committee has changed” since the autumn’s abortive putsch.
What happens now? Jackie Baillie, a combative MSP on the right of the party known for her pro-Trident views – her constituency of Dumbarton is home to Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde, where docks the fleet – is stepping up in the interim whilst Anas Sarwar, whom Leonard defeated in 2017, seems to be the front-runner. There may be a challenger from the left, but not the Corbynite left. There is some excitable talk about Gordon Brown taking over, but Unionists should sincerely hope he doesn’t.
Coming just a few months ahead of this year’s elections to the Scottish Parliament (albeit that these will likely be delayed), any new leader will have their work cut out to try and regain the ground Labour has lost under Leonard’s hapless leadership.
Yet counter-intuitive as it might seem, there will more than a few Scottish Conservatives hoping for just such a revival. For whilst the two may be often bitter rivals, a certain measure of Labour success may be essential to maximising Tory performance.
Why? Because despite all the progress the latter have made over the past decade or so, there remains a substantial section of even the pro-UK electorate that a Conservative candidate cannot reach. Absent a strong Labour candidate, many of those will either stay at home or, worse, vote SNP.
In 2017, when the Conservatives won 13 seats in Scotland at the general election, Labour also saw a small recovery and won seven. In 2019 – after Leonard had taken over – they lost six of those. Meanwhile the Tories also lost seven of theirs – despite several of the defeated MPs seeing their vote go up. (This is why the old chestnut about setting up a united ‘Unionist Party’ in Scotland is such a bad idea: it takes a range of options to maximise the pro-UK vote.)
Obviously there are limits to this goodwill, and Tory strategists will be concerned by polling which suggests they might cede second place. But a stronger Scottish Labour Party is essential to defending the Union, which makes their determined hopelessness on the constitution deeply concerning. Can Sarwar turn the tide? Could anyone?