Scottish Labour’s latest leadership contest has drawn to a close with another victory for the Labour Left. Richard Leonard overcame the handicap of being English to beat Anas Sarwar to the prize.
Now Leonard isn’t an out-and-out Corbynista, as Ian Smart points out, but in the short-term Stephen Daisley is probably right that this result bolsters Jeremy Corbyn’s position within Labour and reduces the odds of friction between the London and Glasgow leaderships.
For Conservatives, the obvious question is what Leonard’s victory might mean for the fortunes of the Scottish Tories.
On the face of it, a revival in Labour’s fortunes could be bad news. If the Yes/No split continues to be big factor in Scottish elections, and both parties are fishing in the pro-Union ‘No’ pool, a Labour recovery could undermine Davidson’s thus-far successful push to establish the Conservatives as the pre-eminent unionist party.
There’s no guarantee that any such revival is likely, of course. Labour did put on six seats in Scotland at the last election but on the back of only a minimal shift in their vote share – and as Alex Massie suggests, Leonard is not (yet, at least) the sort of top-flight political operator likely to trouble Davidson or Nicola Sturgeon very much.
However, just as Brexit opened up a big new section of the Scottish electorate – the Leavers – to the Tories, so too might Leonard’s triumph.
The Nationalist coalition is a large but unwieldy one. It contains not only the separatist true believers but also left-wing idealists brought on board during the 2014 independent campaign and centre-right Scots who often switched away from the Tories when the SNP became the default anti-Labour option after 1997.
A lot of the Tories’ recent success has been the unwinding of that latter constituency. The first evidence of this was the SNP’s strongholds in the North East of Scotland returning heavy ‘No’ votes in the referendum, but it was confirmed when the Conservatives picked up big gains in the region in the 2016 Scottish election and this summer’s general election.
If Davidson’s assault on the SNP’s right flank were paired with an invigorated Labour attack on their left, it would be ever-more difficult for the Nationalists to keep up their all-things-to-all-people routine – and the available evidence suggests that Sturgeon’s instinct is to head off the Labour threat by shifting leftward.
This offers the Conservatives new opportunities. As Daisley points out, Leonard isn’t going to go too hard on the Union if he’s pitching to potential SNP switchers, so the new leadership will likely leave the Tories space to keep consolidating their position with committed unionist voters.
Meanwhile, if Labour and the Nationalists get drawn into competing on the left it leaves a lot of political space on the right and centre open to the Conservatives, if they can come up with the right policy agenda to seize it. Just as with the Brexiteers, a swath of the Scottish electorate is being abandoned to Davidson by the other parties.