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Richard Leonard: Political Games Are Not the Answer for Scottish Labour

Party infighting and political coups will lead Scottish Labour nowhere. It's time for the party to unite around the progressive economic agenda that the people of Scotland desperately need.

This week could have seen a very different set of headlines about Scottish Labour. On Monday, Scottish Labour called for a National Care Service to be a key part of Nicola Sturgeon’s Programme for Government – the culmination of a campaign we have waged throughout the summer, ‘It’s Time to Care About Care.’

Setting out the programme on Tuesday, the First Minister acceded for the first time to this longstanding Labour demand – though side stepped questions over whether her plan would strip the profit motive out of social care. So on Wednesday, I pressed the case again at First Minister’s Questions – and secured a commitment from Nicola Sturgeon to this effect.

If all of this has passed you by, it might be because of how a group of our MSPs have chosen to react to this series of Scottish Labour victories. In fact on Tuesday night, while I was on a Zoom call with Shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds and Scottish Labour members, I was informed that my fellow MSP Jenny Marra was calling for my resignation. By the following day, three other MSPs had made the same call.

These interventions were clearly timed to cause maximum damage to Scottish Labour, and to distract from the real headway we have been making in the Scottish Parliament: not only holding the SNP government to account, but setting the political agenda.

I was elected to lead Scottish Labour less than three years ago. After a period in which the party got through five leaders in six years, I was elected with a clear mandate to lead our party into the 2021 Scottish Parliament election.

I inherited a party in third place, which was still – and is still now – suffering from the divisions of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. And whatever party members’ views at the time of the Better Together campaign, there is no denying that Scottish Labour is still haunted by the legacy of having taken part in an organisation alongside the Tories.

The current popularity in the opinion polls of the SNP government is clearly an issue, as is the recent rise in support for Scottish independence. Both causes have been assisted by the comparison of Scotland’s First Minister’s handling of the pandemic to Boris Johnson’s.

But Johnson’s premiership is a low bar indeed – and there have been serious failings in Scotland too, not least the disastrous spread of Covid-19 in our care homes, which have accounted for half of all deaths from the virus.

So while Scottish Tory leaders Jackson Carlaw and, once again, Ruth Davidson have used their time in parliament to take constitutional pops at Sturgeon, I have focused on the three crises the SNP government have failed to prepare us for: in public health, in education and in the economy.

Day after day, week after week, we have succeeded in shifting the political debate onto these terms. I am in no doubt as to the scale of the electoral challenge facing us next week, but before we reap results, it is necessary we move the political debate away from constitutional wrangling and onto these key life and death issues.

Over the past few days, journalists have asked how I can possibly carry on as leader now that these MSPs have expressed their lack of confidence in my leadership. I still have the confidence of the majority of the Labour MSPs – but more fundamentally, I was elected by the wider membership of the party, including by affiliated trades unionists.

I have received hundreds of messages of support since these disgruntled MSPs went public with their opposition. And make no mistake, some MSPs have never accepted the result of the 2017 leadership ballot.

Scottish Labour members and voters recognise that changing the leader eight months before an election would be disastrous. Many of us remember how badly it worked out when Johann Lamont was deposed in 2014 – with the electoral wipeout that followed under Jim Murphy.

It is an honour and a privilege to serve as a Labour member of the Scottish Parliament, and it seems that some members of our parliamentary group have forgotten this.

Labour members and voters want their MSPs to fight for a Jobs Guarantee Scheme, and job creation – not MSPs who believe they have jobs for life. Labour members and voters want MSPs who will fight for a National Care Service, not MSPs whose biggest care is their own career prospects.

The events of the past two days have sharpened my resolve that we need a new generation of Labour representatives in the Scottish Parliament. When our executive meets on September 12th to set out the process for selecting list candidates, they will no doubt reflect on this too – and so will members when they take part in that ballot.

We need Scottish Labour candidates in next year’s election which will look outwards, not inwards. That will argue not among each other, but for the bold vision for a post-Covid Scotland that I outlined only a few weeks ago: a Green New Deal, a National Care Service, and a quality Jobs Guarantee Scheme as part of a wider intervention to combat unemployment and create useful work.

That is the platform on which we will fight the election, that is the platform on which we are already shaping the agenda and that is what will win back support: because they are the people’s priorities.