Scottish Labour’s problems run far deeper than Richard Leonard

The party is staring into the abyss, and no saviour is climbing out of it.

Bampot is a slang Scottish term that Collins Dictionary defines as an ‘idiot’ or ‘fool.’ It is not a word that is often used in press releases or political communications.

However, the ASLEF trade union has cast that orthodoxy aside in calling for “bampots and the naysayers” to “shut up and let Richard do what he was elected to do.”

They were referring to the embattled Scottish Labour leader, Richard Leonard, who is in the middle of fighting-off an ongoing coup attempt. Despite days of bad headlines, ironic accusations of being out-of-touch from Labour peers and resignations from his front-bench team, Leonard has made clear that he has no intention of standing-down.

So far, the Westminster leadership has been reluctant to get involved, although, when questioned by Sky News, Shadow Cabinet Minister Rachel Reeves said he should “consider his position.”

Leonard still has political friends around him, including former leadership contender Neil Findlay MSP, who has accused detractors of ‘treachery with a snarl’, Manuel Cortes, the General Secretary of the TSSA union, who has accused critics of “self-indulgence”, and Scottish Young Labour.

His team has struck a confident and defiant line. He has stressed he is “absolutely convinced” that he is the right person to lead the party while denouncing his critics and calling the moves against him “an act of sabotage.”

If not Richard Leonard, then who?

It is almost a foregone conclusion that whoever leads the party into next May’s election will finish with the worst result in its history. The most optimistic poll taken this year puts Scottish Labour on 17%, making it a distant third behind the SNP and Tories.

However, Leonard’s position is stronger than it might appear. There is not a mechanism to force him out. If he refuses to resign, then there will need to be a formal leadership contest which he would stand a good chance of winning.

One problem for those looking to remove him have is that there is not an obvious alternative. The Scottish Labour benches have been depleted over the years and are not exactly awash with political heavyweights.

The prospect of leading the party into what will inevitably be a terrible election cannot be an enticing one for anyone looking to the future. Possible runners and riders may pause to consider the fates of Kezia Dugdale, who Leonard succeeded. She took the reins a matter of months before an election and could not fully recover her authority from what was a historically bad result.

Anyone who managed to beat Leonard would be taking over a divided party and a dysfunctional MSP group that has proven itself incapable of uniting.

Bigger than one person

The last three leaders have covered the political spectrum, with Jim Murphy coming from the right of the party, Dugdale from the centre and Leonard from the left. None have been able to break-through to the public, and none has managed to stop the briefings or unify the party. The problems and failings are not individual, they are institutional.

Equally, it is hard to know what Leonard’s endgame is. If he survives then it could make his position in the party stronger, but at what cost? The political bloodletting would only serve to undermine him further with the wider public. He’s already facing an up-hill struggle: only 8% of people say that they have a favourable opinion of him, and most will never vote for bitterly divided party.

But if not Leonard, then who? Possible challengers include Anas Sarwar (who Leonard beat to win the 2017 contest), Jackie Baillie (Leonard’s Deputy leader) and Jenny Marra, who is among those to have called for his resignation. None of them enjoys a high public profile, and it is hard to see any of them being guaranteed to win an internal contest or doing notably better with a disinterested electorate.

Even if we accept that Richard Leonard is part of the problem, it’s not evident than any of his colleagues are any more likely to be a solution.

An electoral abyss

Some activists are drawing parallels with the 2016 coup-attempt against Corbyn, but Scottish Labour is in a different position from the UK party. Richard Leonard is not Jeremy Corbyn, and the party profile is different. Scottish Labour did not see the same influx of members after Corbyn won, and was the only part of the UK where members voted for Owen Smith in the 2016 leadership contest.

Next year’s election will be dominated by independence. I do not believe that Labour needs to support independence, or that doing so would win back voters. But with the constitution continuing to dominate, the decline is likely to continue.

Labour cannot re-build without winning over a significant number of people that voted Yes in 2014. Until another referendum has happened it is unlikely that many of them will ‘come home’ to a Labour Party that has shown it is incapable of running itself let alone the country.

With the party staring into an electoral abyss, there are no good options. The problems faced by Richard Leonard are not new, and nor are they unique to him. If he is removed, then it is likely whoever replaces him will be held back by the same issues and toxic political culture.

Surely the more pertinent and depressing point is this: regardless of whether it is Leonard or any of his colleagues that leads the party into next May’s election, it is unlikely to make any difference to the results. Any bampot could tell you that.

Andrew Smith is a Glasgow-based political campaigner. He works for a human rights organisation and tweets here.

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