Labour can finally shake off its Blairite shackles and win back the Scottish people for progressive politics, says VINCE MILLS
SCOTTISH Labour leadership elections are a bit like Glasgow buses — you wait ages for one and then along come three.
Although to be honest we’ve not had to wait that long for them here in Scotland of late, having had contests in 2011, 2014 and 2015.
It was only a year ago Jeremy Corbyn stormed to his second leadership victory, seeing off Owen Smith in a Britain-wide contest. Then last month Kezia Dugdale resigned ostensibly, and probably honestly, for personal rather than political reasons, creating another contest for the leadership, this time for Scottish Labour.
That is not to deny that there have been political tensions. Dugdale made her disapproval of Jeremy as clear as her support for Owen Smith.
She could probably have survived this given Smith’s relatively good showing in Scotland — at least among full party members.
But questions were raised about her grasp of strategy during the snap general election when she concentrated on an anti-independence platform rather than emphasise the widely popular, radical Corbyn manifesto. It probably lost Scottish Labour the opportunity to pick up many more than the seven seats they managed, given the unexpected sag in SNP support.
Although this was commented on, especially by the left including of course the Morning Star and this column, it was not accompanied by calls for Dugdale to resign.
First, she had by then apparently accommodated herself to the Corbyn leadership and Scottish Labour had introduced a number of radical policy initiatives, and there was, in any case, no obvious alternative.
The left needed someone to signal their desire to contest the leadership on the basis of a fundamental transformation of Scottish Labour, making it clear to the Scottish people that the party is no longer that of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, of wars and austerity.
Despite the absence of any immediate political pressure, Dugdale apparently assessed the implications of signifi cant changes in her own life — including a new partner who is an SNP MSP — and decided to go.
This could have caused a major crisis for the left. Bereft of a candidate, the right (now describing itself as the centre) would have been able to choose whoever it liked to lead Scottish Labour, putting in jeopardy the ground that the left had gained.
But cometh the hour cometh (in this case) the man. Step forward Richard Leonard. As fate would have it, he is the perfect standard-bearer for the Scottish Labour left.
Why is this? Well, secondary benefi ts fi rst. He has spent all his working life in Scotland in the labour movement: in the STUC, as researcher to Alex Falconer MEP and principally with the GMB. But as a Yorkshireman by birth, he also brings an understanding of the of the breadth of experience of the British labour movement and the solidarity that entails.
Unlike his opponent Anas Sarwar he is a relative newcomer to parliamentary politics — he won his seat through the Central Scotland list in 2016 — but he is already an economy spokesman for the party at Holyrood and was central in drawing up the party’s industrial strategy for Scotland.
More to the point his Parliamentary contribution is informed by years of work in the wider movement: he served on the Scottish living wage steering committee, he is secretary of the Keir Hardie Society and he has been a major contributor to all fi ve Red Paper publications since 2012. He is, of course, also a contributor to and supporter of the Morning Star.
But actually, the primary reason why Leonard’s candidacy is so important at this juncture is his understanding of the crisis that Scottish Labour faces and, more to the point, how to respond to it.
This crisis has its origins in the failure of the last Labour government at Westminster — foreign wars, the failure to facilitate the recovery of trade unions by reversing anti-union laws, the introduction of tax credits which allowed employers to keep pay low, the continued decline of manufacturing, the deregulation of finance and increase in personal debt and, finally, the financial crash made a bonfire of working-class hopes for real change.
The Labour leadership, implicated in creating the very conditions that led to that crisis, was unable and unwilling to debunk the myth that it was public spending and not finance capitalism that led to the financial crisis.
While it would be unfair to claim that Scottish Labour was implicated in every ideological betrayal of New Labour, it not only accepted some of its most egregious polices such as private finance initiatives with open arms, it got itself inextricably linked to the Tories in the Better Together campaign of 2014.
This was catastrophic. Not only did the Tory-led coalition continue New Labour’s deepening inequality and privatisation agenda, it ramped up austerity — more welfare cuts, zero-hours contracts, in-work poverty, benefit sanctions and the proliferation of foodbanks.
By 2015, as in many other European countries, people in Scotland looked to politicians who could offer a simple answer to a complex problem, especially a solution that did not require a challenge to the dominant ideology of big business. In Scotland that was nationalism and that was the SNP. They swept the board in the general election, all but obliterating Scottish Labour.
All that began to change in June in the snap general election when, armed with Jeremy Corbyn’s radical manifesto, Scottish Labour began a recovery — albeit only a limited recovery. And, shorn of the promise of an independent Scotland fl owing with milk and honey and poor performance as a government in areas such as health and education, the SNP monolith began to fracture.
Richard Leonard understands that in order to restore the trust of the Scottish people in the Scottish Labour Party, that party must now rediscover its purpose. New Labour must be seen to be dead and buried and a raft of radical policies advanced to prove it, just as Leonard has been doing.
And the left needs to rebuild an activist movement at a grassroots level based on an alliance of trade union and constituency party activists. Without such a base, it will be difficult to build electoral support for the radical policies advanced by Corbyn and Leonard and impossible to shape the Scottish Labour Party into an instrument capable of making that change.
This is where Leonard’s campaign itself can help. There is a one-month window closing on October 9 during which new members and supporters can sign up and be able to vote in the contest.
Trade unions, socialist societies, constituency Labour parties, and councillors will be able to make their supporting nominations between Monday September 18 and 12 noon on Friday October 13.
The importance of this contest and of having a candidate who understands this importance, needs to be grasped by everyone on the left in the Labour Party and trade union movement.
As Leonard himself says: “It is now time to set out Labour’s vision of a more equal Scotland with full employment in a sustainable economy, funding quality public services, providing dignity for our pensioners and hope for our young.”
Vince Mills is chair of the Campaign for Socialism.