Is Labour’s “radical” new leader in Scotland a turning point for the party?

Scottish Labour are being re-launched today with a strong anti-austerity message – but will it be enough to win back voters from the nationalists?

Richard Leonard was elected Labour’s new leader in Scotland a week ago. He’ll use a speech today with Jeremy Corbyn to promise a “radical” left-wing agenda for Scotland. Is Labour about to start taking back lost ground?

“This moment can be a turning point for our party in Scotland but also for the UK as a whole,” Richard Leonard, the new leader of the Scottish Labour Party will say in a speech later today.

Sharing a platform with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, Leonard will say “Labour has changed, and now we are determined to change Scotland”.

Leonard’s plan, outlined in his speech, is to emulate in Scotland the successes tactics of the Westminster party and its anti-austerity policies.

A vocal fan of Corbyn, Leonard will aim to bring the Scottish wing of the party in-line with the Westminster leadership. Compared with his predecessor, Kezia Dugdale, who called on the Labour leader to resign last year, the close ties will be a significant change.

Addressing Corbyn, Leonard will say:

“His principles, policies and integrity – along with the energy and passion of hundreds of thousands of new members – has breathed new life into our party. I pledge to do the same here in Scotland.”

Labour saw electoral wipeout in Scotland in the 2015 Westminster elections, losing all but one of its 41 seats to the Scottish National Party (SNP). The party clawed back six more seats in 2017, but Labour has remained in the political wilderness north of the border for the past two years. Leonard’s faces a tough task.

Scottish Labour faces the fundamental challenge of pushing its own anti-austerity message in the face of the SNP’s very similar policies — which they’re fond of attacking.

As Sean Swan writes on the LSE’s Politics and Policy blog: “The basic problem Scottish Labour faces is that for Holyrood the party to beat is the SNP; for Westminster it’s the Tories.”

“If Scottish Labour persists in attacking SNP anti-austerity measures in Holyrood, they cannot expect to have much credibility when they then assume an anti-austerity position themselves when contesting UK general elections as part of UK Labour.”

Scottish Labour’s fortunes ultimately depend on whether the party can provide progressive reasons for a continued union with Britain — if it can successfully distance itself from what Swan calls “Tory and British nationalist Union-Jackery”.

Leonard will have to strike a fine balance between critiquing SNP anti-austerity policies in Holyrood whilst promoting Labour’s own ideas, which look very similar. If he succeeds though, Labour may well inflict a crushing blow on the Scottish nationalists.

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