Most people on the left in Scotland will welcome the election of Richard Leonard as the new leader of Scottish Labour. Clearly identifying himself as a socialist, though not as a “Corbynista”, his vote represents a major step forward for all those looking to see Labour become a party in Scotland which challenges the Tory agenda of austerity, cuts and the scapegoating of refugees and immigrants.
Up till now Scottish Labour has been led from the right of the party. For Kezia Dugdale, their former leader, it was more important to attack the SNP and rubbish the idea of independence than attack the Tories or put forward a positive message which chimed with Corbyn’s socialist agenda.
It is a measure of how far things have moved that Richard Leonard’s opponent, right wing millionaire businessman Anas Sarwar, declared his enthusiastic support for Corbyn and put forward a manifesto almost identical to his left wing opponent.
The scene is now set for Scottish Labour to present a positive message which chimes with the national party under Corbyn’s leadership.
However, there remain several major obstacles for Leonard to overcome if Labour’s support in Scotland is to grow to a level enjoyed by the party in England and Wales.
These do not include, despite all the controversy generated in the Scottish press, Dugdale’s unfathomable decision to join the contestants in the jungle of “I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here”, or Leonard’s declared support for the English national football team.
A major difficulty for Labour is the fact that the SNP remains by far and away the most popular party in Scotland. Opinion polls show its projected vote between 36 percent and 40 percent. Labour is polling around 28 percent — well behind its national support of 42 percent.
The reason for this is not hard to find. Independence remains popular in Scotland particularly with working class potential Labour voters. The Labour Party’s opposition to independence and its antagonism to a second independence referendum are major barriers to it winning increased backing.
Another problem is that while Leonard’s victory is a major success for the left, the right wing of the party continues to have significant influence. Almost all the Labour MSPs in the Scottish Parliament backed Sarwar and 48 percent of registered members voted for him. More encouragingly 77 percent of affiliated members voted for Leonard.
But perhaps the most significant statistic is of the numbers voting. During the 2016 national Labour leadership election campaign over a half million people participated, with Corbyn gaining 78 percent of the vote. Only 21,000 people voted in the Scottish leadership contest — considerably less per head of population in comparison.
Again this is not difficult to understand. The equivalent young enthusiastic anti-Tory Corbyn supporters looking for substantial change in Scotland supported independence in the 2014 referendum and largely joined the SNP as a consequence.
Nevertheless, with the SNP now having been in power for more than ten years and a record in government that, despite some good policies, is far from impressive, there is significant ground for it to be challenged from the left. Regardless of the SNP’s verbal opposition to cuts and austerity, it does little in real terms to alleviate the worst impact of the Tories’ destructive policies. It now has significant tax raising and benefit powers, which have only been used sparingly. Levels of poverty and deprivation have worsened during its time in power.
The SNP’s reaction to the Spanish government’s brutal crackdown on the Catalan independence movement in the wake of the October referendum has created some serious disquiet among independence supporters in Scotland. The SNP has said that it “respects the position of the Catalan government” and that “Catalonia has the right to determine its own future”.
Unfortunately, the SNP’s support for the European Union has severely blunted its response. The EU has made it clear that the repression of the Catalan people is a matter for the Spanish government and that an independent Catalonia will not be allowed to apply for EU membership. This has not been challenged by the Scottish government.
The SNP has recently taken control of Glasgow city council. The court of session has ruled that a 2007 scheme for council workers, introduced by the previous Labour administration, was detrimental to low paid women workers because it excluded them from bonus payments. The council now faces a potential £500 million bill to settle this.
Prior to taking over in Glasgow Nicola Sturgeon declared that the SNP would “sort out Labour’s mess over equal pay”. However, since coming to power the SNP has dragged its feet and is now taking the judgement to the UK supreme court. Scotland’s first minister should honour her commitment and provide Glasgow city council with the money to allow a settlement.
Up till now growth in support for Labour in Scotland, which is real enough though far less than south of the border, has depended largely on Corbyn’s political challenge to the Tories and the UK political establishment.
Leonard’s victory means that a campaigning socialist message in Scotland will be reinforced rather than undermined. Many of the affiliated votes for him came from the trade unions. He should use this to encourage the unions to act over pay, conditions and cuts.
As a former union official, he has the contacts, the influence and now the credibility to lead a real fightback in Scotland which can unite those Labour and Independence supporters sick of years of austerity and cuts.