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Richard Leonard

Richard Leonard. Photo: The Scottish Parliament / cropped from original / CC BY 3.0, license linked at bottom of article

Chris Bambery looks at Labour's long-term decline in Scotland and why it's unlikely to turn around with Richard Leonard's departure

The departure of Richard Leonard as leader of Scottish Labour comes when the party is at the lowest point in its modern history, trailing behind the ruling Scottish National Party and the Conservatives.

Older readers will recall that just two decades ago Labour dominated Scottish politics north of the border and seemed unshiftable. The hollowing out of Labour and Social Democratic parties across Europe is a familiar tale but in Scotland it has a unique twist – one that did for Richard Leonard.

The roots of Labour’s decline stretch far back. When the Scottish parliament was created in 1999 most of the party’s bright young things saw it as Mickey Mouse affair and continued to head of to Westminster as soon as possible. It meant even when they were running Holyrood their MSP’s were lacklustre. The party had treated its strongholds with contempt, particularly in Glasgow and the West of Scotland. Despite Glasgow’s Red Clydeside image that was not associated with the Labour Party, in addition to the forces who would eventually make up the Communist Party (including John Maclean’s gifted lieutenant, Harry McShane), the biggest concentration of activists was in the Independent Labour Party, which broke away in 1932, with five MP’s in the city.

Labour, rather than being a party of activists, was based on the apparatus of Glasgow City Council and of the trade unions. It looked at members with suspicion, likely to be troublesome left wingers. The result was that Labour until very recently was dominated by the right in Glasgow with MPs and councillors selected on the basis of their uncritical service to the party.

In the early 1980s, Edinburgh, where the party was much weaker, was the centre of the left around Tony Benn. It had a council which promised to defy Thatcherite austerity and spending cuts, before it backed off in the face of the law, as elsewhere.

In the unions, the Communist Party ran the Scottish TUC and the Scottish NUM, and was important in the Transport Union (the mainstay of today’s Unite).

By the turn of the century Labour voters increasingly felt taken for granted by their leaders and alienated by the UK leadership of Tony Blair – over the Iraq war, of course, but its whole privatising, pro-business, pro-City of London agenda.

That created an opening that most charismatic leader of modern times in Scotland, Alex Salmond, seized. I sense hackles rising as some read that last sentence but I am not asking you approve Salmond, just to accept he was the most gifted Scottish politician of that era.

What Salmond grasped was that lots of Labour voters wanted Old Labour but were getting New Labour. He shifted the SNP leftwards to pick up the rhetoric, at least, of Old Labour. Above all the SNP clearly opposed the Iraq war and Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon and other figures joined Stop the War platforms. One effect was that the SNP displaced Labour among Scottish Muslims.

In 2007, Scottish Labour received a shock from which it never recovered. It lost control of the Scottish government when the SNP were the biggest party, just, in the Scottish election and formed a minority government with the support of the Greens.

Tony Blair back in 1997 when elected was very suspicious of Scottish devolution but was persuaded by his deputy, Gordon Brown, and his Scottish Secretary, Donald Dewar, that the proposed voting system would block any party winning overall control but Labour as the biggest party could then hold office in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. The fear of course was that if the SNP took office they would move for independence.

Labour remained moribund, uninspiring and too much New Labour. In office, Salmond could get away with murder and the SNP looked more left wing and dynamic – appearing to be to the left of Scottish Labour wasn’t difficult. Labour leaders came across as still believing they ran things in Scotland and voters were just plain wrong.

The SNP were helped by the car crash of the Scottish Socialist Party, the radical left, pro-independence force which had five MSP’s elected in 2003 but fell apart in a bitter faction fight four years later. Many of its supporters would shift in the lack of any left option to the SNP.

In 2011, the SNP won an overall majority at Holyrood, doing the seemingly impossible, on the promise of holding an independence referendum if elected. By now David Cameron was in office at Westminster, heading a Tory-Lib Dem coalition committed to austerity. Salmond positioned the party, in words at least, in opposition to a Westminster government which lacked popular support in Scotland.

Eventually Cameron conceded a referendum, confident the No vote would thrash the Yes for independence one.

It was now that Labour made its worst mistake. Even the knuckleheads running Scottish Labour realised they should not join a pan-unionist campaign with the Tories. But under questioning from the Tories, Ed Miliband pledged that’s exactly what they would do. Labour joined Better Together and wrapped itself in the Union Jack.

As we know the 2014 independence referendum was a much nearer result than Cameron et al had expected. Labour effectively ran Better Together but ran an insipid campaign. At the close, Cameron had to beg Gordon Brown to come in from the cold and run a personal campaign for No, mixing old-time Labour religion he still carried somewhere at the back of his brain and crude threats such as 'independence would mean a cut in the state pension'.

The eventual Yes vote was based on working-class communities, it won in Glasgow and Dundee and polls showed large numbers of trade unionists voted Yes despite their leaders asking them to do the opposite.

There were other huge shifts. The SNP had traditionally been seen in the Scottish-Irish community as representing the Presbyterian Scotland of old. Now it swung overwhelmingly behind independence. And the young voted Yes.

The 2015 general election saw the SNP win all but three Westminster seats in Scotland. Labour losing 40 of the 41 seats they were defending, including the seats of Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy and the then Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander. The party had lost its former council strongholds, with Glasgow the last to fall.

The party, bereft of power, fell into civil war.

It was hard to see a way back. It had painted itself into a pro-Union corner but if you wanted to vote for the Union, the Conservatives were the hard Unionist party. As the Tories experienced a modest revival Scottish Labour was pushed into third place.

The answer seemed to come with the election of left winger, Richard Leonard as Scottish Labour leader in 2017. Down south Jeremy Corbyn secured a far, far better election that year in a fresh Westminster general election than anyone had expected and a spectacular spike in membership (not unlike that of the SNP in the wake of the 2014 referendum).

But problems began to set in. Leonard wasn’t Corbyn. Instead, he came across as what he was – a former college lecturer and GMB union official. His performance at Holyrood didn’t set the heather alight either.

But secondly, while the Corbyn “effect” was felt in Scotland, it was much more muted than down south. Corbyn’s natural supporters in Scotland were pro-independence and he made clear he was opposed to that. Secondly, the forces of the Labour left were far less dynamic or radical than those who emerged to build a new Labour left. They were heavily influenced by the remnants of the old Communist Party and rooted in the lower levels of the trade union machine. They could not attract and hold Corbynistas. But above all Corbyn kept the party in opposition to independence.

Since the arrival of Sir Keir and the removal of the Labour Whip from Corbyn and much else, Leonard largely chose silence.

Now Leonard has gone. None of the touted replacements look capable of reversing Scottish Labour’s fortunes and it is hard to see that happening in any circumstances. Scotland’s once-mighty “party of government” has fallen far with no route back.

One result is that the SNP look set to win this year’s Scottish elections, after 14 years in office, despite the party leadership having no strategy for independence and having shifted the party in a decidedly neoliberal election. But then Nicola Sturgeon has the easy task of appearing more human than Boris Johnson during this pandemic.

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.

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