Is there a leader who can transform Scottish Labour?

Party set for its tenth leadership election since Scottish devolution.

Is there a leader who can transform Scottish Labour? Getty Images

It’s that time again, yet another contest to elect a new leader of the Scottish Labour Party, the tenth of the devolved era.

This time there are two gluttons for punishment, Glasgow MSP Anas Sarwar, who lost the last contest in 2017 to Richard Leonard, and Central Scotland MSP Monica Lennon.

Leonard’s surprise resignation last Thursday was prompted by the knowledge that some trade unions who had given his leadership the benefit of the doubt, were unlikely to back him in any confidence vote. A behind closed doors heave proved decisive where last September’s stab-him-in-the-front coup failed, not least because his detractors moved without having the numbers to succeed.

From Donald Dewar in 1999 it has come to this. With every contest the party looks further away from influence, nevermind power.

This is the party of Willie Ross, John Smith, Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, the aforementioned Dewar. In comparison it would be charitable to bestow the description ‘lightweight’ on the wannabe leaders.

If that judgement sounds over-personal, it is not meant to be, it is simply an acknowledgement that politics is a tough, unforgiving business which places huge intellectual and emotional challenges on anyone who seeks to lead. With respect to Sarwar and Lennon, they are simply not in the same league as those who dominated in past decades.

Although only 37, Anas Sarwar has been around a while and is well versed in the frequent unpleasantness of internal division. He has a thicker skin than his slightly boyish demeanour suggests. His father is also a heavyweight champion of past battles and he will have counselled his son wisely. Whatever else can be said of Sarwar, he knows what he is taking on.

Monica Lennon has been an MSP for almost five years and in that time has campaigned diligently and, in the case of ending period poverty, highly effectively. The leap from inexperienced front-bencher to leader shows no lack of ambition. I don’t know her so I can’t judge if she is temperamentally suited to the demands of leadership. Let’s just say this looks like a big ask for a relative newcomer to frontline politics.

Lennon is likely to win the backing of those on the party’s left who characterise Sarwar as an unwelcome echo from the days of New Labour. Sarwar has always sought to take a more nuanced approach to his own politics, always emphasising that he is a man of the party mainstream. The Guardian describes him as centrist; whatever that means. Let’s just say he is not a man of the Labour left and that is good enough for them. They will back Lennon.

Lennon has not been short on straightforward views. She wants a party that is less tied to London and has been noticeably more open minded on the question of a second independence referendum. That latter issue will not sit well with some on the party’s left, who despair that Labour traps itself by dancing to the SNPs tune on the constitution.

The most basic issue for whoever emerges victorious is how they halt the decline. In the 1970s, Labour offered a Scottish Assembly and their efforts branded them as a party of change. Likewise, their support for the Constitutional Convention in the late 1980s in part allowed them to drive the campaign for change and then deliver the Scottish Parliament. They substantially owned the agenda.

Post 1999, they have become the party of the status quo and have ceased to articulate any meaningful agenda on how Scotland should be governed. Their malaise is more broadly one of the Better Together side in 2014. Independence offers change, Unionists offer words about the nightmare of the SNP’s endgame without crafting a distinct platform for themselves.

On the constitution both candidates have two questions to answer. IndyRef2, yes or no? And what change are you offering?

Keir Starmer is more comfortable with constitutional politics in a way that Jeremy Corbyn was not. Although any recovery for Labour will have to be made in Scotland, it doesn’t do the party any harm that Starmer is well viewed by electors on the competence front and actually understands constitutional reform.

If IndyRef2 takes place, Labour will not make the mistake of joining forces with the Tories. That decision back in the day has proved very damaging. But they need something of substance to sell beyond vague words and flying kites marked Federalism. 

Richard Leonard attempted to take bread and butter Labour issues and have them cut through the swamp of the constitution thereby reclaiming for Labour the mantle of the truly progressive party in Scottish politics. And he tried, often with real passion and always with genuine concern. But he simply couldn’t prick the constitutional bubble.

So long as Scottish politics is defined by the long shadow of 2014, Scottish Labour will remain marginal until they have something meaningful to say. What is to stop them from saying, a future Labour government will legislate for a new referendum and offer our package of reform against the SNPs vision of independence?

Such a stance would do two things. Partly neutralise the charge they won’t give voters a choice and secondly put them back in the game of helping to craft change. It might, of course, be too little, too late.

Jackie Baillie is the one Labour politician at Holyrood who can rile the government but she is not standing. I suspect that Sarwar’s experience will see him through. 

If he wins, the job won’t phase him. He is also not without courage as his campaigns on racism have shown. But in the coming weeks he has to set out a clear agenda, one of distinct policy which rise above warm words and which give Scottish Labour a platform of firm foundations.