POLITICS: Richard Leonard quits as Scottish Labour leader

Front-runners – Dumbarton MSP Jackie Baillie and Anas Sarwar.

By Bill Heaney

Richard Leonard has been pushed out of the leadership of the Labour Party in Scotland, claiming it is in the best interests of the party for him to stand down.

Many will feel this was inevitable since Labour could never have fought back from third place behind the SNP and the Conservatives, which is something that grieves their rank and file  membership dearly.

However, remarkably, Glenn Campbell, the BBC Scotland political editor, says many people in the Labour Party will not have seen this coming.

The world and his granny must have known this was certain to happen as the frustration was palpable and even the party’s full time officials had started to quit and look for other jobs.

Richard Leonard said he believed speculation about his leadership had become a “distraction,” and that he would stepping down with immediate effect.

The front-runners for his position are Dumbarton constituency MSP Jackie Baillie, currently the party’s deputy leader in Scotland, and Anas Sarwar, who has been making a name for himself in his campaign for justice for the families who lost loved ones due to defects at the new Queen Elizabeth University Hospital.

Mr Leonard had been leader of the party for three years after succeeding Kezia Dugdale, who resigned and walked off to as prestigious job at the University of Glasgow, a controversial low brow TV role in I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here.

Former GMB trade union official Leonard was well known in West Dunbartonshire since his remit was looking after employees in the Scotch Whisky industry and there are hundreds of them, mainly at Chivas in Dumbarton and Edrington at Clydebank and Drumchapel.

He had faced embarrassing calls to quit from some of his own MSPs last year amid concerns that his leadership style could damage the party in the forthcoming Scottish Parliament election.

Remarkably, there were criticisms about his Yorkshire accent and his seeming inability to be abrasive enough in confrontations with Nicola Sturgeon at First Minister’s Questions.

This was Richard Leonard out canvassing in Vale of Leven with Jean Anne Mitchell, the Labour candidate for the West Dunbartonshire seat at Westminster. She lost and has left the party.

Polls have suggested that many Scottish Labour supporters struggle to recognise him, and he is closely associated with former UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

The truth is he is probably too nice a guy to survive in the dog eat dog world of Scottish politics which is most definitely not for the faint-hearted.

Scottish Labour had dominated politics that scene for decades, but is currently the third largest party at Holyrood behind the SNP and Conservatives.

And Mr Leonard’s critics had questioned whether he was ever going to be capable of turning the party’s fortunes around.

He has certainly failed to capitalise on the failures of the SNP and Tory governments to get on top of the coronavirus pandemic  – PPE shortages and other cock-ups, soaring care home death numbers, the transfer of patients infected with Covid from hospitals into care homes to name a few examples on a long, long list.

In a statement, Mr Leonard said the decision to resign had not been easy – but he felt it was the right one for him and his party.

He said: “I have thought long and hard over the Christmas period about what this crisis means, and the approach Scottish Labour takes to help tackle it.

“I have also considered what the speculation about my leadership does to our ability to get Labour’s message across. This has become a distraction.

“I have come to the conclusion it is in the best interests of the party that I step aside as leader of Scottish Labour with immediate effect.”

And what then of Jackie Bailie? I am sure she will not accept this poison chalice on offer. That would be like a footballer choosing to take the field when his team was two men short and three goals down.

But Ian Miller – a Co-operative Party representative on the SEC – died in November last year, which shifted the balance of the SEC in favour of Leonard’s internal critics. GMB and Usdaw also strengthened their opposition to Leonard.

Responding to Leonard’s resignation, Keir Starmer said: “I would like to thank Richard for his service to our party and his unwavering commitment to the values he believes in.

Keith Starmer – “Even from opposition Richard has achieved a considerable amount for which he should be very proud.”

“Richard has led Scottish Labour through one of the most challenging and difficult periods in our country’s history, including a general election and the pandemic. Even from opposition he has achieved a considerable amount for which he should be very proud.

“This includes securing a commitment for the creation of a national care service, securing action on a Jobs Guarantee Scheme to deal with youth unemployment, securing a human-rights based public inquiry into the treatment of care home residents during the Covid pandemic and securing support for a Fair Rents Bill to give new rights to tenants.

“He has done so with dedication to the values of our movement. I wish Richard the very best for the future as one of our MSPs and know that he will continue to play an important role in Scottish Labour.”

MSP Neil Findlay said: “Looks like those who have led a three year campaign of briefings to journalists, leaks of private conversations and the constant feeding of stories to the media to bring down a decent and honest man have succeeded. These flinching cowards and sneering traitors make me sick.”

Campaign for Socialism and Momentum said they “remain resolute that we should go into the May election with the socialist policies that Scotland needs” and there “must be no backtracking” on policies adopted under Leonard.

Scottish Labour interim leader Jackie Baillie said: “I thank Richard for his service to our party and his genuine commitment to the values we all hold dear.

“Scottish Labour has set the agenda for Scotland’s recovery from the pandemic, forcing the SNP government to commit to a National Care Service and a youth jobs guarantee. We face the fight of our lives in the run-up to the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections. But as we fight for every vote and seat, we will come together to hold the SNP and Tories to account for their record of failure.

“I know Richard will continue to work hard to campaign for a Scottish Labour government as an MSP, and as our lead candidate in Central Scotland in the Scottish Parliament elections.”

Baillie said: “I thank Richard for his service to our party and his genuine commitment to the values we all hold dear. Scottish Labour has set the agenda for Scotland’s recovery from the pandemic, forcing the SNP government to commit to a National Care Service and a youth jobs guarantee.

“We face the fight of our lives in the run-up to the 2021 Scottish parliament elections. But as we fight for every vote and seat, we will come together to hold the SNP and Tories to account for their record of failure.

“I know Richard will continue to work hard to campaign for a Scottish Labour government as an MSP, and as our lead candidate in Central Scotland in the Scottish parliament elections.”

Scottish First Minister and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon commented: “Despite our political differences, I’ve always liked Richard Leonard. He is a decent guy and I wish him well for the future.”

Below is the full text of Richard Leonard’s statement.

Scotland needs a Labour government now more than ever before. Our National Health Service and public services are at breaking point under the strain of an out-of-control pandemic. Covid is rampant, claiming lives, and striking down so many of our fellow citizens, who are grievously suffering from this awful virus. Workers’ incomes are being squeezed like never before, with job losses rife and businesses going bust. Too many employees go to work day-in and day-out, night-in and night-out leaving them vulnerable to the virus.

Both governments have mishandled its response to Covid, with devastating consequences not least in our care homes. It is essential now that we have an accelerated vaccine roll out – 24 hours a day, seven days a week – to ensure that the most vulnerable and frontline workers are protected against Covid, and that the general population is given greater protection as quickly as possible after that.

I have thought long and hard over the Christmas period about what this crisis means, and the approach Scottish Labour takes to help tackle it. I have also considered what the speculation about my leadership does to our ability to get Labour’s message across. This has become a distraction.

I have come to the conclusion it is in the best interests of the party that I step aside as leader of Scottish Labour with immediate effect. This was not an easy decision, but after three years I feel it is the right one for me and for the party.

I want to thank all those people who placed their hopes in me, and who worked with me in good times and bad. This experience and the great people I have met will live with me forever. I owe a huge debt in particular to all those party members who work tirelessly for the cause of Labour.

I retain my faith in the Labour Party as the party that offers hope to people and that remains the only vehicle for the realisation of that hope. Whilst I step down from the leadership today, the work goes on, and I will play my constructive part as an MSP in winning support for Labour’s vision of a better future in a democratic economy and a socialist society.

Presentational grey line
Analysis box by Glenn Campbell, BBC Scotland political editor

This sudden resignation four months from the Holyrood elections seems to have taken Scottish Labour by surprise.

MSPs I’ve spoken to said they did not see it coming.

There have been times when Richard Leonard has been under severe pressure from some in his party to stand down.

When several MSPs publicly called for him to quit because the party had gone backwards at successive elections on his watch, he stood firm.

His critics seemed to have accepted that he would lead them and a divided party into the Holyrood election.

That has now changed and interim leader Jackie Baillie has to quickly organise a contest to replace him.

It’s a contest in which Anas Sarwar, if he stands, would be an obvious front-runner – even although he lost last time to Mr Leonard, who was seen as much closer to the then UK party leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said Mr Leonard should be “very proud” of his achievements as leader of the party in Scotland.

Sir Keir added: “I would like to thank Richard for his service to our party and his unwavering commitment to the values he believes in.

“Richard has led Scottish Labour through one of the most challenging and difficult periods in our country’s history, including a general election and the pandemic.”

Mr Leonard had been due to face a confidence vote at the party’s ruling Executive Committee last September – but the motion was withdrawn at the last minute.

It came after four Scottish Labour MSPs called for him to go, warning that the party faced “catastrophe” at the ballot box under his leadership.

They pointed to the party’s dismal performance in previous elections under Mr Leonard.

Scottish Labour finished fifth in the European election in May 2019, and then lost all but one of its MPs in the general election in December of the same year.

Mr Leonard insisted at the time that he intended to lead the party into this year’s Holyrood election, and accused his opponents of waging “internal war” against him

Leave a Reply