Richard Leonard, leader of the Scottish Labour Party, looks under pressure.
By Bill Heaney
A motion of no confidence in the Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard has been withdrawn, but it has left the Yorkshire man swinging in the wind with an election in the offing.
People are placing bets on whether he can cling on until the voters go to the polls in May next year.
However, if he does, the consequences could be catastrophic for Labour, who are currently in third place at Holyrood behind the SNP and the Tories and from whom working class voters are deserting to the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister.
Mr Leonard, a trade union official with the GMB with a special interest in the affairs of Scotch whisky workers, including those employed at Chivas in Dumbarton, had been expected to face a vote at a meeting of the party’s governing body yesterday (Saturday).
The motion to have him sidelined was submitted after four Labour MSPs called for his resignation last week, citing poor election results and polling under his command.
Speaking after the meeting, Mr Leonard said it was time to end “internal plotting”.
And he called for “unity not division” within the party.
“It’s time for Scottish Labour to stand together and to stand with the Scottish people at a time when risks caused by pandemic are rising again and when the economy is on the edge of a deep recession with jobs and livelihoods in peril,” he said.
“There must be an end to the internal plotting and we must unite to hold the Scottish government to account and to offer a real alternative.
“I firmly believe that I am the best person to lead us into next year’s elections with a plan for jobs and real economic and social transformation which I know is shared by Keir Starmer, pictured above.
“I have listened to the concerns expressed about me, I will treat those with respect and humility, and I will fight with every ounce of my being to improve the fortunes of the party in the run up to next year’s election.”
The motion was withdrawn after being discussed at the the party’s Scottish Executive Committee (SEC).
The committee is made up of elected representatives as well as trade union officials and representatives of the party’s grassroots membership.
Mr Leonard, who was an ally of former UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, still enjoys the support of many on the left of the party.
But his critics point to the party’s dismal opinion poll ratings as proof that change is needed.
Opinion polls suggest Scottish Labour is trailing a distant third behind the SNP and Scottish Conservatives ahead of the election next May.
Scottish Labour is currently the third largest party in the Scottish Parliament, behind the SNP and Conservatives, and lost all but one of its MPs in last year’s general election.
Jackie Baillie, pictured left, the MSP for Dumbarton, Vale of Leven, Helensburgh and Lomond, was recently elected by a large majority to be Labour’s deputy leader in Scotland.
She has recently been attacked by a number of left-wingers in the Labour party for acting in concert with those members who are part of the heave to move Richard Leonard out of his place at the top of the party.
Ms Baillie herself denied this was the case and declined to comment further on this.
Meanwhile, an influential union leader has told The Guardian that Labour faces an “existential crisis” in Scotland as rebels tabled a no-confidence vote in the party leader, Richard Leonard.
Gary Smith, the secretary of GMB Scotland, said the crisis over the party’s leadership and its plummeting popularity in Scotland raised profound questions about Labour’s future at UK level, with polls putting its support as low as 14%.
The GMB helped finance Leonard’s leadership campaign in 2017, giving him £12,000 and a free “phone bank” to canvass members. Leonard was a senior GMB officer for 20 years before becoming a Labour MSP in 2016. He remains a GMB member.
Smith said the union would not intervene on Leonard’s behalf. The GMB has refused to support his tenure as leader or back the rebellion led by a group of party centrists. Smith indicated most GMB members voted for the Scottish National party.
“At a time like this, our members would not thank us for getting bogged down in an internal Scottish Labour party issue, a party for which many of them no longer vote for,” he said.
“The truth is Scottish Labour’s problems run far deeper than one individual. It is facing an existential crisis in Scotland and the knock-on effect for the UK party could be quite profound.”
Smith’s comments came as the rebels confirmed they had tabled a confidence motion for a meeting of Labour’s Scottish executive committee (SEC) on Saturday, which has been signed by a third of the committee’s 32 members.
Leonard has accused them of fighting a factional war at a time when many Labour policies were being adopted by Nicola Sturgeon’s government.
“The last thing Labour supporters and those we need to win back want to see is a party turning in on itself,” Leonard said. “A lot of these people are not mandated by their organisations to vote in this way.
“That exposes how this is motivated by faction and that this is an entirely factional move. They have nothing to say or offer, no ideas, no plan to protect jobs and living standards against the backdrop of the Covid crisis.”
Leonard’s critics, led by James Kelly, whose resignation last week as Labour’s justice spokesman triggered the rebellion, argue the party’s collapse in support threatens Sir Keir Starmer’s chances of winning a UK general election.
They argue the electoral arithmetic dictates Labour has to win back significant numbers of seats in Scotland to win a majority at Westminster. It currently holds one seat.
Leonard’s critics also argue few donors will fund Labour’s Holyrood election campaign in May if he is still leader, making it more likely the SNP will win a majority and demand a second Scottish independence referendum.
They believe the UK party will be unable to fully fund a Scottish campaign because its finances will be tightly stretched with simultaneous election campaigns in Wales, regional mayoral contests and council elections, including for the Greater London assembly.
The rebels expect the no-confidence vote to be extremely close, but Leonard has won public backing from two other key unions, Unite, Scotland’s largest, and Unison, and the former veteran Labour MEP David Martin, bolstering his confidence.
Those unions each have two votes on the SEC, as does the GMB. Unite gave Leonard £30,000 for his campaign in 2017 and phone bank support, while Unison donated £9,000. Usdaw, the shop workers’ union, also has two votes on the SEC and gave Leonard £5,000 but it has not yet said where it stands on his future.
Pat Rafferty, Unite’s Scottish secretary, told the Sunday Post: “Voters will be repelled by this sort of conduct. They want to see their MSPs focused on supporting communities and saving jobs, not indulging in underhand efforts to dislodged an elected leader. Whoever is organising this disgraceful coup should pack it in at once.”