Photo Credit: Kevin Walsh
As night follows day and as summer ebbs away into autumn, one facet of human existence remains unaffected by the challenges of the novel Coronavirus. I am speaking, of course, about Scottish Labour’s ability to mire itself in yet another leadership crisis.
James Kelly kicked off proceedings by resigning as a justice spokesperson on the evening of the day on which the SNP launched their governmental programme for the remainder of the Scottish Parliament’s term. Since then, three further Labour MSPs have broken cover to question Leonard’s leadership.
Like basically every aspect of life pre-pandemic, the virus has exacerbated pre-existing trends and set the running sores of the public realm oozing afresh. If you’re the as-good-as-anonymous leader of Scottish Labour, the virus has not enhanced your ability to dominate column inches; nor can you make political weather with coverage essentially limited to actions taken by the UK and devolved governments.
As such, it’s reasonably understandable that at a nadir in Leonard and the Party’s polling
these MSPs have called for the leader to move on. Scottish Labour finds itself uniquely ailing among the pantheon of UK Labour Parties, neither benefitting from riding the coattails of a newly-elected and popular Keir Starmer, nor experiencing the rally-to-the-flag effect Welsh Labour have enjoyed as the pandemic has rolled on.
However, this attempt, like so many other Scottish Labour leadership experiments, is missing the fundamental issue as to why the party finds itself in such dire political straits – which is that the party has consistently failed to voice a widely appealing and electorally coherent position on Scotland’s place within the United Kingdom. Time and time again the party has sought retail solutions to this problem, summarily failing to address the principal concern of the majority of the Scottish voting public.
It’s a difficult line to walk, don’t get me wrong: driving a middle path of ‘the Scottish Parliament needs a greater degree of legislative competency but the Union should be preserved’ is a position almost unique in its impressive capacity to hack off voters on either side of the constitutional divide. Especially now, in the era of Covid, where recognition of Scotland’s public health response to the virus lends itself to increased support for the SNP, while the weighty fiscal response can bolster support for the Tory government in Westminster. But it’s hard not to feel that Scottish Labour could be giving it a better go.
The obvious comparison for this lies in how another devolved Labour Party has managed to tackle a similar question, namely how the Welsh Labour Party was able to tease out and eventually formulate a coherent position on Wales’ place within the Union. The speech Rhodri Morgan gave in 2002 on ‘Clear Red Water’ was initially seen as a rebuke of the centralising and centrist tendencies of the Blair government of the day. But its lifetime and relevance reach far beyond the specifics of the New Labour years and the infancy of the Welsh Parliament, with it subsequently providing the political and rhetorical framework upon which Welsh Labour’s position on the Union has been built.
It took graft, real political heavy lifting, but Welsh Labour were able to steal a march on Plaid Cymru and adopt much of their rhetoric without ceding a commitment to the Union. It’s this strategic view of emerging attitudes that has enabled Welsh Labour to maintain its dominance, while in Scotland, where no such rupture with the UK party took place, they find themselves in the doldrums, unable to formulate a coherent position between Independence and outright Unionism. Scottish Labour’s failure to clearly establish itself as more than a ‘branch office’ of the UK party has stored up many problems which need to be addressed.
The alternative path, and the one a sizable number of Labour MSPs seem intent on treading, is one of least resistance and easy answers. There may be some truth to the idea that a more forceful and telegenic leader could improve the party’s chances next year – that with a fresh face at the helm a degree of momentum might be generated. But it could equally and easily be construed as the actions of an unserious and divided political party. Countering that charge would require a level of political dexterity that isn’t immediately apparent in any of Leonard’s potential successors.
Regardless, Leonard is cut from a similar cloth to Jeremy Corbyn in that neither are particularly driven by a desire to conform to the expectations of their parliamentary colleagues. At this point, without a genuinely impressive pitch from a challenger, members may well think he’s at least entitled to a crack at next year’s election. The expected poor performance of a divided party can then be blamed on Leonard’s intransigence or the MSPs’ disloyalty, according to personal taste.
I won’t pretend for a moment that Scottish Labour’s task is easy. Unlike the Welsh party, which benefits from being in government, the third party in Scotland is denied much of the oxygen of publicity. The challenge in essence requires them to forge a position that is both technically and intellectually meaningful while not simultaneously eschewing emotional immediacy with the voting public. Which, plainly, is a position that’s really incredibly difficult to construct and subsequently hold together.
When former Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones was once asked how he’d fix Scottish Labour he thought for a moment and replied “I wouldn’t let them [the SNP] own my flag”, and he’s not talking about slapping Saint Andrew’s cross on every Scottish Labour leaflet here – it’s a fundamental challenge to the political space Scottish Labour have carved out for themselves both implicitly and explicitly. And that’s the scale of the problem for Scottish Labour. Deluding ourselves that the rot can be stopped with a fresh coat of paint rather misses the point that the entire house is falling down.