Richard Leonard and the Long Rise of Scottish Socialism

by Nathan Akehurst

21 November 2017


It’s an hour since Richard Leonard won the Scottish Labour leadership with 57% of the vote against Anas Sarwar, and we’re in a central Glasgow pub.

The victory party is a who’s who of Scottish left politics – MPs and staff milling about, newly-elected Fire Brigades Union chief Denise Christie outside, and Leonard staffer and former Jeremy Corbyn aide Simon Fletcher in another corner. There’s also a generation of younger people. For some it’s their first serious campaign, but the victory they’re celebrating belongs to them as much as the veterans propping up the bar.

‘Things slowly started to change’

While a jubilant Leonard poses for selfies downstairs, the campaigners at our table reminisce on how different things were not too long ago. “A lot of this has its roots in Socialism First,” says academic and Labour activist Ewan Gibbs, “where we had six people in a room at Glasgow Caledonian University.” That campaign made a socialist case against Scottish independence, drowned out by a centrist Better Together argument and a Yes camp attracting leftist support via formations like the Radical Independence Campaign.

The Scottish Labour left then existed via the Campaign for Socialism (CfS) – initially established to defend Labour’s clause IV (committing the party to collective ownership). CfS marshalled some organised trade union support behind the Scottish Labour left.

“I joined Labour in 2010,” continues Gibbs. “My first meeting was stuffy, but we worked at it and things started to slowly change during the movement against tuition fees.” He fast forwards to 2014. “We needed to unite people voting Yes and No in the independence referendum; we were saying that control of the economy, not the constitution, was the central point.”

The No campaign, of course, won narrowly. Labour leader Johann Lamont resigned, saying the Scottish party was treated “like a branch office.” The Scottish National party (SNP) seized on her words, “but they missed the point,” Gibbs adds, “that a lot of it was about how Scottish Labour politicians, not HQ in London, treated us.”

Something had to be done. “I was in a pub with Elaine Smith [MSP] and John McDonnell at the time,” says Gibbs, “who were trying to get [socialist ex-shadow health secretary] Neil Findlay to stand.” An October 2014 piece on left blog Roch Winds made the call, arguing “Findlay’s candidacy would be at the very least a form of interruption, if not quite a radical reorientation of politics. It would unsettle established forces in this party and in Scottish politics, which are unprepared for him because he is so profoundly unlikely.”

Such could be written about Jeremy Corbyn. But it was still autumn 2014, and Findlay lost with 35% of the vote. “We were never going to win,” says a campaign source, “and most of us knew it.” The project was about establishing a clear, critical and class-based politics against the broad coalitions grouped around the signifiers of Yes or No. Uncivil Society, a blog set up after Findlay’s loss, attempted to preserve the project.

These interventions did not prevent Labour under arch-Blairite Jim Murphy from losing every single seat but for Edinburgh South in 2015. Labour may have been seen as anaemic and out-of-touch for some time, but the total wipeout was unprecedented. “It wasn’t inevitable,” Gibbs adds. “Murphy was the first of this thing we’re familiar with now; very clever people having no idea what they’re doing.”

From the wreckage of 2015 emerged the Corbyn moment, propelling him to the UK leadership that September. The organs of the English Labour left were partially hollowed out and grappling with tens of thousands of new recruits overnight. Momentum did not yet exist. Scotland was different: the Corbyn surge was less pronounced but the organised left more so. One new project emerged in the party’s youth wing – Scottish Labour Young Socialists (SLYS) is credited, along with the north west of England, as being the most effective corner of Labour’s youth movement. It is plural, democratic, radical and combative. It too was steered by young activists who cut their teeth in the Findlay campaign.

One of those activists is Alistair Craig, who is now pushing for the youth to be given real influence. “A youth surge helped propel Richard. We had hundreds at the Ready for Richard gig at a week’s notice; it’s almost unprecedented. We’re out-polling the SNP among 18-25s. The way to build that is giving young people a place developing policy and strategy, not just for photo-ops.” SLYS activist Alison Campbell Glass also believes the youth wing holds the grip to getting more women into power in Scottish Labour, noting that “women were constantly active at phonebanks and at driving the Leonard campaign’s meaningful involvement with women voters, at community meetings and so on.”

Meanwhile Kezia Dugdale replaced Jim Murphy as leader in a moderate leftward shift. The day Leonard won she agreed to go on I’m a Celebrity… in a move seen by many as proof of her “not really giving a shit any more” in the words of one member. Response on Labour’s right has been vitriolic – Labour councillor Michael Marra responding “this is what happens when you elect children to senior positions” – while Leonard expressed gentle disappointment.

On her leadership, many activists are more charitable and argue she had a poisoned chalice. “All you had left in Scottish Labour were Blairites and Marxists, and everyone you’d call soft-left in England – Ed Miliband, etc – had fucked off to the SNP. Except Kez,” says one. Another adds: “She took the party to a better place than where it was. You have to give her that.”

‘I’d never met Leonard, but he talked my language’

Dugdale clung on past gloomy Holyrood results to see a surprise realignment in the 2017 election, with the SNP slumping and gains going to both Labour and the Tories. The Corbyn surge hit, with hundreds gathering at 8am on a weekday in Glasgow to watch him speak on the eve of polls. The left was bolstered with new MPs like Danielle Rowley and Hugh Gaffney (who walked into parliament with his postie overalls on). Gaffney is now thrilled by the Leonard win; the two founded the Keir Hardie Society together as trade union officers. “This is more than a change in leader,” he says, “it’s a change of direction. We are going back to our socialist roots; under Richard we’re becoming a party of radical ideas again.”

A few months after the election, Dugdale resigned. Journalists hunted for evidence of backroom drama, but her explanation of ‘personal reasons’ held. “We’d accepted Kez was sticking around,” says one source. “We’d thought about another leadership contest, and I think Sarwar maybe had half an eye on it, but her resignation took us by surprise.”

A tranche of Scottish left activists told me that Findlay would run again. But the torch passed to Richard Leonard, a relative unknown outside the labour movement who had spent 20 years as an organiser for the GMB union and served as head of economics for the Scottish Trades Union Congress. His grasp of political economy won him left support; it is often felt that the Scottish Labour left’s project has a more advanced conception of industrial strategy as a means of redressing the balance between capital and labour.

“We have more emphasis on economism,” says Alistair Craig. “There’s fleshed-out ideas for reindustrialisation which we developed in opposition.” A former GMB negotiator in the steel taskforce, Leonard wrote in the Red Paper Collective (another left/union initiative) about his criticisms of a Scottish government that used industrial policy as an emergency option rather than taking an active hand in the economy and empowering workers. Scottish Labour’s recent industrial strategy – which Leonard worked on – included a range of proposals on productivity, investment, and digital, manufacturing and rural economies but also a clear call for rebalancing with measures such as land reform and a workers’ right-to-buy.

Contender Anas Sarwar was embattled from day one. His role in his family business failing to pay a living wage hit the press. In spite of a former Scottish Daily Mail political editor and Labour comms director at the helm, entry-level gaffes proliferated throughout the campaign, including an email saying Sarwar stood “for the few not the many” and identical pre-written endorsements appearing under different politicians’ names on a leaflet. The Leonard camp ran a sharp operation, notwithstanding an accidental press release containing the line: “a comment on the latest pish.”

Leonard’s campaign had to “both make the Scottish left autonomous and link us to what was going on with Corbyn,” says activist Suzie. Early on, Leonard said in an interview he was “too long in the tooth” to be “a Corbynista.” He meant he’d been on the Labour left prior to Corbyn, but it was taken as a distancing move. It didn’t dissuade either veteran Labour leftists or new fans.

Suzie, a former supporter of radical pro-independence group Rise, says the Leonard campaign was the first she’d been “tooth and nail into.”

“Richard earned my trust,” she said, “and at the same time the trust of my unionist-consensus gran who listens to Question Time every week, because he’s genuine and people can tell. And I called people during the campaign who didn’t know who he was but would bring up nationalisation, wealth distribution and Jeremy Corbyn.”

Suzie is echoed by former Green Mike Williamson. “Go back three years and tell me I’d be in Labour and I’d have laughed you out of the room. But I became disillusioned, then saw a ready-made project in Labour and never looked back. I’d never heard of Richard but I met him in Dalkeith on the campaign’s first weekend and he talked my language.”

“And we won this campaign because of a movement across Scotland, not just the shining talents of people at the top.” Leonard’s victory, Craig adds, will recruit more people, “dissipating fears that are preventing some from engaging with Labour.”

“Looking back on it, not much changed during the campaign,” said one Leonard supporter, even though it was exceptionally long – longer than the general election campaign. “Most knew who they were voting for at the beginning.”

‘My biggest hope is we can implement our policies’

Leonard argues there is now a consensus in Labour around “extending public ownership, of tackling inequality, of more progressive taxation and of a redistribution of power.”

He can appeal to both the activist and the institutional left when shaping his platform, combining a willingness to sing socialist anthems at his victory party with a commitment to building a broad church. But according to supporter Lauren Gilmour, his platform “demarcates a shift from a managerial approach to one that empowers workers and brings power closer to people.”

With Leonard’s victory secure, he has to turn his headline policies into party policy, then government policy.

Many are already popular. The crowd at the leadership announcement burst into applause at the proposal for a ‘Mary Barbour law’ (AKA rent controls, named for a legendary Glaswegian activist who organised rent strikes among working class women in Govan in 1915.)

Rent has risen by as much as an average £1500 a year in some property types in Scotland over recent years.

“Housing has got worse,” says Williamson. “Rent is through the roof and there’s cartels of landlords pledging not to reduce it. A lot of renters vote SNP – but that will change.”

Leonard faces the moment Corbyn did in 2015; coming into the leadership from the sidelines and meeting an ambivalent party establishment. Campaigners are worried operators at the party’s Bath Street headquarters may not accept a change of direction. Some at the victory party felt Leonard’s win had been as much about opposition to dynastic politics in the party as it had his programme.

“My biggest hope is that we implement our campaign’s policies,” says Campbell Glass, “and we can push past internal strife to get it done together. It’ll be a team effort here and outside Scotland to support everything Richard does.”

“This was more than a nine week campaign; it has been about winning the Scottish Young Labour exec twice running, getting folk like Hugh [Gaffney] into parliament – it’s been non-stop and it will keep being non-stop.”

“There will be pushback to things like the wealth tax”, adds Craig, referencing a bold policy which will wedge the left against Scottish landowning capital in particular.

“Scottish Labour is still quite top-down. We need to involve members and unions with policy – I think the best way around the big beasts is to clarify that party conference really is our sovereign decision-making body.”

Meanwhile the SNP government is shifting towards the centre. Some among the SNP grassroots feel Nicola Sturgeon is triangulating – even the recent row over Alex Salmond’s new show on Russia Today was seen as evidence of this. The radical edges of the SNP’s land reform agenda are muted, and its refusal to increase tax to fund public services puts the party’s rhetoric and practice at odds.

“Their middle-class base is shifting to the Conservatives in both the north and south,” says Craig. “When push comes to shove they’ll prioritise that, and Richard will pose a challenge to them in Glasgow and post-industrial towns. They’ve peaked, because they can’t implement the politics they appear to represent.”

Leonard will have to head off the Tory surge as well. Much will pivot on whether he can successfully break past nationalism/unionism as a primary identifier. He will hope the key is in his long-term support for federalism in the interests of gaining powers to redevelop Scotland’s economy and redistribute wealth, not just as a ‘middle ground’ between Yes and No.

Unsurprisingly, it’s the labour movement providing Leonard’s main bulwark.

“We’ve been hamstrung since the 1990s by this idea of civic Scotland where business and unions are partners mediated by the government,” says Craig. “Richard’s election opens the space to pursue a strategy weighted towards labour. It depends how radical Richard wants to be and what constraints are on him but if he wants, he can transform dominant narratives in Scottish politics.”

Persistent, grinding poverty continues to plague parts of Scotland. The insecurity, low wages, high living costs and grinding labour discipline that characterise work across Britain are hitting in Scotland. Leonard activist Laura Dover, a former call centre worker, talks of “contractual nastiness: deductions from your final salary for leaving your job within six months of starting, astronomical charges for unreturned headsets, no occupational sick pay” in her role in a sector with “no culture of trade union membership.” This is no isolated story.

Leonard’s first act as leader was to attend the site of an industrial dispute at BiFab (Burntisland Fabrications). Much like Corbyn’s first act was to attend a refugee demonstration, circumstances allowed political positioning to be clarified.

A week prior the engineering company was threatened with closure. The GMB union’s battle to save 1400 jobs at the plants culminated in a partial settlement delivered (coincidentally) hours after Leonard’s visit – government funding to ensure a windfarm project continues. “There hasn’t been a showing of strength on this level for generations,” says GMB organiser Hazel Nolan. “On Monday the owners told the workforce they wouldn’t get paid. By evening there was an occupation across all three yards and on Thursday 1,000 workers marched on parliament, forcing the hand of the Scottish government.”

Trade unionists hope Leonard’s leadership will raise other workers’ confidence similarly. “In 2013,” says parliamentary staffer Scott Lamond, “I watched as Richard Leonard battled for workers’ justice over blacklisting whilst the SNP did nothing except award government contracts to the culprits.”

Now the message is clear: organised labour in both its industrial and political expressions is back as a serious force.

Writer Cailean Gallagher describes Leonard as “coy and cautions”, pointing out he has never been a CfS member and adding he has worked to “swerve the constitutional quagmire” rather than engage independence supporters.

Nonetheless Leonard is a trade unionist with socialist support. Many wilderness years have brought the broader labour movement and the Labour left closer together in opposition to managerial cliques, and the left’s hope is that this alliance can be built on to push a Scottish socialist strategy based on labour, tax and land.

That hope is founded in the slow advance of the Labour left over the past few years, and in Richard Leonard’s trade union grounding. As Gallagher and everyone in the bar cheering a previously unthinkable victory points out, there is a slow and steady climb behind the Scottish left’s new star.

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