As Labour critics circle, we need to talk about Richard

Scottish Labour Richard Leonard is under pressure from his party's MSPs to step down.

His opponents are clearly circling and there is for Richard Leonard, I fear, an inevitable choreography that will now play out.

This morning shadow justice minister James Kelly quit. As soon as this was announced, former frontbencher and long-time Leonard critic Daniel Johnson called on him to go, along with his colleague Jenny Marra.

They are unlikely to be the last figures in Scottish Labour urging a change at the top.

We have been here before. Many times. And for Scottish Labour, the script rarely changes.

Replace the leader and then replace him or her again and again. In between the merry-go-round of personalities there is behind-the-scenes tension and argument but rarely any meaningful engagement with the people who can really change the fortunes of the party: the voters.

That Richard Leonard isn’t cutting it with the public is palpably obvious, given the party’s dire ratings. There is something of the student debater in his parliamentary performances and he lacks the charisma and gravitas to command the Chamber and get the better of the First Minister.

I have watched him as an activist, union official, MSP and now leader for three decades. He is pretty well liked within the Labour movement, even by those who do not share all of his views. Don’t underestimate that, anyone who can emerge in the likeability stakes in the frequently fractious world of Labour politics can’t be all bad.

He is warmer in private than his edgy public persona suggests. He actually has a grasp of issues but faced with a robust interview he can give the impression of a man who has not done his homework. His lack of presence is further handicapped by an ill-at-ease countenance.

His politics are anchored and indeed are immovable on the mainstream Labour Left. They have rarely changed all of his life. It gives him the certainty of ideological positioning but underpins an inflexibility to analyse outwith the strictures of dogma.

Leonard, like Kezia Dugdale before him and Jim Murphy before her and Johann Lamont before him, have all struggled to cut through in electoral terms. To those who want Leonard gone, a simple question, what makes you think anyone else will do any better?

Scottish Labour’s malaise is deeper and more profound than who leads it, although a heavyweight leader would help. They don’t exist, not in the group at Holyrood at any rate

You would have to go back to Donald Dewar to mark a leader of genuine national standing who commanded respect beyond the Labour vote and he died 20 years ago next month.

Just take that point in for a second. It is two decades since Labour were led by someone who was viewed positively even from those who did not agree with him.

Henry McLeish’s tenure as leader and first minister was short lived. Jack McConnell steadied the ship but was unable to keep Labour in its pre-eminent electoral position.

Wendy Alexander was better suited to leading a think tank than a political party.

Iain Gray, a man of deep convictions, could not derail the SNP juggernaut and for all his personal qualities lived up to his name in the eyes of too many voters.

Johann Lamont complained that the party in Scotland she led was treated like a branch office by London and Jim Murphy departed with an intemperate swipe at the union leaders who subsequently supported Leonard’s candidacy.

The Scottish Labour movement was once the embodiment of class solidarity, of being seen as the only credible champion of working people and of being anchored in communities they understood and represented. The electoral dividends that followed were huge, even when sometimes underserved given the state of some councils.

In old Scotland, many working-class people would have felt distinctly uncomfortable voting anything other than Labour. It would have felt like an act of betrayal.

But in post-devolved Scotland, the sons of Lanarkshire steel workers and the daughters of Fife miners happily vote SNP. After all, aren’t the SNP just old Labour with independence thrown in?

What is the purpose of Scottish Labour? That’s the more profound question as opposed to who should lead it.

Labour has been pretty awful at defending its historical achievements, which are not inconsiderable. Worse still, they have not convincingly challenged the notion that only the SNP represent a progressive social democracy.

Take one example.

Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) in 1971 was a high point of the solidarity that Labour champions. It was a cry for the right to work.

However, during the independence referendum UCS was represented by some in nationalist terms – Scotland fighting Heath. It did not appear to this observer that anyone in Labour had the determination to recast this in a more accurate historical light.

For years Labour led the debate on the constitution but now appear to have little to say beyond some abstract calls for federalism.

The electoral view suggests that voters now believe that the SNP are to be trusted on a progressive agenda and in the eyes of more hard-line unionists the Tories are to be more trusted on opposing independence.

The problem for Leonard and indeed his eventual successor, is that so long as Scottish politics is still defined by the fallout from 2014, it is unlikely to move on to a better terrain in which voters are ready to listen to what Scottish Labour has to say.