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Editorial: Scottish Labour’s right are the authors of the party’s problems – they cannot solve them

THE link between Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard’s resignation and a call between Keir Starmer and wealthy donors is a scandal.

If Starmer did indeed give Leonard his marching orders, following his astonishing call on the Tory government last year to deny Scots an independence referendum even if they vote for one, it will only fuel suspicions that Scottish Labour dances to a tune set in Westminster rather than at home.

The notion that millionaire potential donors could dictate the departure of the party leader emphasises the Starmer leadership’s distance from ordinary people in an even starker sense.

The move cannot be understood in the Scottish context alone — as a principled socialist and ally of former leader Jeremy Corbyn, Leonard was a continuing obstacle to Starmer’s drive to discard the radical policies of the last five years. 

His passionate advocacy of economic planning and state intervention to “rebuild and reform” the economy went beyond addressing the huge dislocation caused by coronavirus to look at the underlying reasons Britain has been so badly hit — a hollowed-out and part-privatised public sector, a workforce saddled with poverty pay and job insecurity, enormous social and regional inequality.

The approach contrasted with the muted opposition down in London, where the Labour front bench focuses on how to get “back to normal” rather than raising the powerful case made by the pandemic for far-reaching change.

His critics will retort that, whatever his policies, they failed to cut through: Labour under Leonard has not shifted the Scottish National Party’s hegemony north of the border and fell behind the Tories to third-largest party in the Scottish Parliament.

MSP Neil Findlay is right to flag the Labour right’s culpability in these matters: it is hard to “cut through” when you are constantly undermined and leaked against.

Like the embittered Corbyn critics in the Westminster Parliament, the Labour right in Scotland keep up a relentless stream of negative stories about the leader and then point smugly to his poor ratings.

And just as in England following the collapse of the “red wall,” the Labour right remain blind to their longer-term responsibility for the collapse of working-class support for the party.

Labour’s Scottish collapse came earlier, when Jim Murphy led the party into the 2015 general election that saw it go from dominance of Scotland’s Westminster contingent to irrelevance within it — from 41 of 59 seats to just one — overnight.

The decision to tee up with the Tories in 2014’s Better Together campaign undoubtedly angered its working-class base, but so did its decision to ape Tory rhetoric on social security as a “culture of entitlement” and its unpopular support for British militarism, particularly Tony Blair’s wars and the Scotland-based nuclear arsenal. 

Though the SNP is by no means a socialist party, it was then able to outmanoeuvre Labour to the left, while the sense that the party hierarchy was dominated by a self-serving elite unconnected to the working-class communities they were supposed to serve took root in those communities over years before bursting through at Holyrood in 2007 and at Westminster in 2015.

As the No Holding Back campaign has argued, rebuilding working-class support means active engagement, more working-class representation in party structures and policies to address the deindustrialisation and impoverishment of huge swathes of the country.

If Leonard struggled to do that, there is no evidence that his critics even understand the problem.

Rather than challenge the division of the working class into nationalist and unionist camps, the right seem intent on competing with the Tories for the “hard unionist” vote and alienating supporters of independence and devolution alike.

This dovetails well with a Westminster party whose leader specialises in spouting platitudes in front of a Union Jack, but will do precisely nothing to address Scottish Labour’s long-term decline.


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