Scottish Labour’s Self-Destructive Coup

By launching a coup against Richard Leonard in the midst of a major crisis and only months before an election, Scottish Labour's old guard has shown just why the public sees them as utterly out of touch.

In recent days, the tired, failed and discredited panjandrums of our decades-long decline have demanded Richard Leonard’s head. He should go, they say, to be replaced by… well, they don’t actually know. A new approach is called for, they insist. What does that approach involve? Well, once again, no clarity has been forthcoming.

The people and politics that oversaw Scottish Labour’s fall from a position of dominance to main opposition and then to ‘other parties’ status are trying to save their skins – and they are doing so at the expense of any hope of recovery.

Make no mistake: Scottish Labour’s position is dire. But this coup has been launched just at the moment that an opinion poll puts us in second place for the first time in over three years. What better point to turn inward and spend three months consumed with a leadership election?

Labour went into opposition in Scotland thirteen years ago. It was the main opposition for ten years – but we were in third place when Richard Leonard took over. Blaming the party’s decline on his leadership while planning to return power to the very faction which presented him with such a hill to climb is a truly shameless endeavour.

“We aren’t cutting through,” claim Leonard’s detractors. There is an element of truth to this, of course – but the reason for that has little to do with Richard Leonard, or even any great policy or strategic flaw.

How you do as the third party is less about what you do as about how others do: whether or not a bigger bubble bursts. It isn’t Labour who face off against the SNP at First Minister’s Questions – it’s the Tories, who consequently get the lion’s share of the coverage. The party is consequently not seen as a viable alternative government.

It wasn’t Richard who put us in that position, he’s just had to deal with it. If you are looking for scapegoats, don’t blame the guy put on deck after the ship had hit the iceberg. Look to the group in Holyrood who steered it on its disastrous course, squandering the opportunities when we were the opposition rather than listed under ‘other parties.’ 

Recent weeks have presented rare chances to cut through, from John Swinney’s exam fiasco to the SNP adopting our National Care Service proposal. These might have been one of the few moments a third-placed party has to grab the public’s attention.

But here again, what did the MSPs who were responsible for Labour’s predicament do? Did they seize the moment, communicate Labour’s politics to the public and try to undo some of the damage of the last decade by conveying a progressive and competent approach?

Did they indeed. Instead, they launched an utterly destructive and self-serving coup, one which makes the party seem totally disconnected from the crisis working people are experiencing through the pandemic, waves of redundancies and a historic recession.

Calls for Richard Leonard to go were spearheaded by a group of MSPs now known as the ‘Unfamous Five.’ This sounds like a harsh description, until it is taken on board that the fifth member is literally unknown to us, as the other four won’t say who he or she is – Enid Blyton’s mob at least had Timmy the dog.

With marvellous tactical nous they played into every nationalist accusation that Scottish Labour is a ‘branch office’ by claiming that they could call a leadership election based on Westminster Labour Party rules.

This ignored the clear rulebook provisions at both a Scottish and UK level, which say that Scottish leadership rules are determined not by MSPs having a fit of pique, but by the Scottish executive acting for the party. “Five Can’t Read a Rulebook,” as Ms. Blyton might have put it.    

Since that effort failed, and a special meeting of the Holyrood group failed to even endorse a challenge, a no confidence motion has been put to tomorrow’s executive. Three of the rebel MSPs sit on the executive – although, if they are to back the Labour group position, they should not be voting for a leadership contest. Mandates, however, are not their strong suits.

The executive consists of a wide variety of representatives – from trade unions to CLPs, socialist societies, local government reps and Westminster itself. The two Westminster figures, in this case, are particularly interesting.

Baroness Meta Ramsay, an unelected peer, has called for Richard Leonard, elected by the votes of thousands of members and trade unionists, to step down. You might say this is a little spooky, and you would be right; she is the former head of MI6. Unfortunately, the mission she has found herself involved in this time is some distance from 007.

The other is Ian Murray MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland. Comrade Murray has been notorious in recent weeks for revelations that he had planned to leave the Labour Party for Change UK, even going so far as to recite a speech at their practice launch. In truth, the only real ‘revelation’ was the fact they actually practiced that disastrous affair.

Conspiring against the Labour Party in early 2019 didn’t stop the bould Ian deciding he wanted to be its deputy leader a few months later – an enterprise in which he was backed fulsomely by Jackie Baillie, now Scottish Labour’s own deputy leader. Much like Ian Murray’s protestations of loyalty, Jackie Baillie’s own assertions during her election that she would work with Richard Leonard will now surely generate the hollowest of laughs.

Tomorrow, the party’s Scottish executive will vote on a motion of no confidence. It will decide between Richard Leonard’s proposal to renew our presence at Holyrood – a place where the party has diminished in size at every election for the last thirteen years – or to back the coup launched in its halls.

Richard Leonard wants to see fresh, primarily female and working-class faces on the Labour benches representing those our party was established to fight for. The old guard behind this utterly indulgent exercise want the politicians to continue their stranglehold over the party, which has dragged it down for more than a decade. If Labour is to recover, there is only one way forward.