It’s all change again with the election of yet another Scottish Labour leader; the fourth in three years. After a leadership contest marred by personal slights and a conclusion featuring the suspension of the deputy leader on allegations of spousal abuse and the former leader making a foray into reality TV, Scottish Labour desperately needed a fresh start. Richard Leonard MSP, newly elected to Holyrood in 2016, won a convincing leadership victory with nearly 57% of the vote vowing to be the ‘real change’ Scotland needs.
Ahead of the Scottish parliamentary elections in 2021 Leonard has a great deal of work to do to reshape Scottish Labour into a credible electoral force. The party of devolution has become the third party in Scottish politics. Although signs of growth were evident at this year’s general election, with the election of seven MPs and many significantly reduced SNP majorities, Scottish Labour’s road back to power is a long one.
The effects of a decade out of power have been exacerbated by the churn of leaders. Leonard needs the time to provide the party with the stability it so needs. As part of the ‘real change’ he has promised, Leonard must set out a fresh policy programme that connects with the concerns of the Scottish people. An encouraging start was made with the announcement of a series of 12 policy reviews to shape the basis of the party’s offer to the electorate. A manifestly Scottish Labour offer will help to signal the growth of the party, one that has too often been in the shadow of its UK counterpart. Although politically aligned with Jeremy Corbyn, Leonard has the opportunity to put his own stamp on the Scottish party and should resist any temptation to follow unquestioningly where the national party leads. Scotland has a distinct polity and needs distinct policy solutions.
However important a coherent policy programme is, it cannot detract from arguably the biggest political issue of our time; Brexit. The blanket media coverage of the Brexit negotiations has shifted talk of Scottish independence from centre stage but it would be naïve to believe that the SNP will not capitalise on the increasing political and economic turbulence Brexit is stirring in the UK. Scottish Labour needs to once again become the chief defender of the union in Scottish politics. This mantle has been taken by the Scottish Conservatives with their rigorous and unwavering defence of the union, backed up by continued electoral success. Scottish Labour was perceived as soft on the issue of a second referendum in the 2016 Holyrood elections and Corbyn’s apparent ambivalence towards the SNP did nothing to counter this stance. Again, the national leadership’s less than firm line on Brexit has done little to aid the Scottish party. Leonard can take this opportunity to be bold and combine a progressive policy programme with a strong defence of the union.
With a new leader in place Scottish Labour has the chance to move beyond the personal squabbles and factional politics that has dogged the party for over a decade. Leonard has the luxury of being relatively unscarred by the internal disputes of the past and should capitalise on this. After a decade in which the SNP has hollowed out Scotland’s public services, it is crucial Leonard has the confidence to lead the party back to where it needs to be; serving the Scottish people in government.