ON 18TH NOVEMBER THE SCOTTISH LABOUR PARTY (SLP) announced Richard Leonard as its new leader with 56.7% of the vote on a turnout of 62%. Leonard won the SLP membership with 52%, but the levy paying union vote with 77%. The contest has been described in some quarters as between capital and labour given Richard Leonard's trade union background and the extensive family business empire of his opponent, Anas Sarwar. The result is a pivotal moment in Scottish political history.
The SLP has been probably the most right wing section of the Party since Jeremy was elected - the only constituent part in which the membership delivered a majority for Owen Smith. This can in part be put down to the false attractions of nationalism.. Many activists in Scotland - who had they been south of the border would be Labour Party members - are instead in the SNP or other parts of the nationalist movement. This makes Richard’s victory absolutely critical for the SLP to recover both electorally and in building its membership. Victory for Leonard and the left at last answers the point made by some of the more political elements of the working class in Glasgow during the election - “We support Corbyn, but not Scottish Labour because they're so right wing.”
Just think what the alternative, a victory for Sarwar, would have signified. It would have meant the right wing had won a membership vote for the first time since Jeremy's first victory and Scottish Labour remained to the right of the SNP and continued to implement austerity.
A strong campaign for Richard Leonard was successful in getting the bulk of nominations - 43 CLPs to 16 for Sarwar and all 14 unions and affiliated societies who made a nomination. While publicly the campaign was debated in a civilised fashion, both sides understood the significance of the fight. Right wing luminaries like Alastair Darling, Johann Lamont and Ian Murray were working for Sarwar - sending out thousands of text messages. The effort of the left were based more on the rank and file - phoning and texting members up and down Scotland with supporting statements by prominent activists. The left won with a campaign that had a far lower degree of media coverage than the two Corbyn leadership campaigns. Communicating with members was the critical factor.
The promise of the Richard Leonard campaign is that it will produce an SLP clearly and credibly to the left of the SNP - and which appeals on a class basis rather than falls into the trap of having a position on independence as the headline policy. The policies put forward by the campaign began to do just that - on key areas of housing, trade union organisation, and wages and rights at work. This will be critical in turning the Party outwards and appealing to the wider left and the working class to join and build a genuine mass membership party.
However, the SLP will have to show itself to be an organisation which actually fights austerity and its effects if it is to gain the trust of the more politically conscious layers of the working class. The policies that Richard Leonard has promised will go some way towards this, but the positions and actions of the Party in local government will be another important factor.
This was summed up by one of the leading stewards in the ICT strike against Glasgow City Council (GCC) at the start of this year when the Labour Party was still in charge of GCC. Fighting efforts by the council to hand over himself and his colleagues to an outsourcing outfit known for rapacious tactics against its workforce, his take on the Labour Party at a supporters’ meeting was a warning. He saw himself as exactly the sort of person who should be joining the Party in the wake of Corbyn's two victorious leadership campaigns - but the actions of the council meant he could not bring himself to do it.
Our hope is that with Richard’s victory most of these objections will be overcome and there will be a substantial increase in the membership of Scottish Labour. If that happens, and those new members organise to transform the Party - sweeping away the right wing's grip on so many key positions and shifting the Party to actually fighting austerity rather than implementing it - then the Party can at last begin to build a real base of support.