On Saturday 18 November, Richard Leonard was announced as the new Scottish Labour leader. In the election contest triggered by the sudden resignation of Kezia Dugdale, he defeated Anas Sarwar by 57% to 43%.
Among individual members Leonard had a narrow majority (52% to 48%). Among affiliated trade union supporters he had an overwhelming majority (77% to 23%). Among registered supporters Anas Sarwar secured a narrow majority (52% to 48%).
A sizeable chunk of Sarwar’s votes from individual members would have come from new members who signed up under a special “join for £1 a month” scheme. It will be interesting to see how many of them remain members.
Even so, the narrowness of the result among individual members, and Sarwar’s (narrow) victory among registered supporters, underlines the ongoing strength of the right wing in Scottish Labour.
Sarwar sought to portray himself as a bit of a radical and as an enthusiastic Corbyn supporter. He stood on a platform of policies which he had singularly failed to champion as an MP (2010-2015) and as deputy leader (2011-2014).
His support for Owen Smith in the 2016 Labour Party leadership contest was also brushed under the carpet.
Though he was described in the media as the “centrist candidate”, Sarwar’s electoral base in the contest was the resolutely right-wing faction of the Scottish Labour and, overlapping with that, the least active elements of the party.
Sarwar lined up an array of right-wing ‘“celebrities”‘ to endorse his candidacy, including Alistair Darling, Alan Johnson, Stella Creasy, Jackie Baillie, Ian Murray and Iain Gray. Of those Glasgow Labour councillors who made a nomination, 90% backed Sarwar. (Glasgow Labour Group is a bastion of the right.)
Only 30% of CLPs which made a nomination in the contest backed Sarwar. But the actual vote for him among individual members was around 50% higher than that (48%).
Although the overall election campaign was conducted in terms of “two great candidates, difficult to work out who to vote for”, a victory for Sarwar would have been a disaster for Scottish Labour.
In 2014, Jim Murphy was elected leader. Murphy had been the public face of the Scottish Labour-Tory “Better Together” campaign, had supported the invasion of Iraq, had backed the introduction of tuition fees, and was a lifelong career politician.
The message which his election as leader sent to the Scottish electorate was: We don’t care what you think. We don’t care that he represents everything that is driving you away from us. We take you for granted so much that we assume you’ll still vote Labour.
In the following year’s general election, Labour lost 40 of its 41 seats in Scotland.
Sarwar’s election as leader would have sent out a similar message: Yes, he comes from a millionaire family. Yes, he sends his son to private school. Yes, he was paid £20,000 a year for thirteen years on his shares. Yes, the family firm does not recognise a union or pay the Living Wage. But we assume that this will not put you off voting Labour.
In fact, the prospect of Anas Sarwar as leader, together with the sometimes rather moderate nature of the “real change” promised by Leonard, resulted in a layer of right-wingers and real “centrist”‘ voting for Leonard.
This underlines the instinctively right-wing politics of a large layer of the 48% of members who voted for Sarwar in the ballot, despite all the “baggage” which he would be bringing to the post – which would also make him a sitting duck for the SNP.
Leonard is now the ninth leaders in 17 years, and will face an uphill struggle.
Only a minority of Labour MSPs backed him in the election campaign. The party still lags well behind the SNP in opinion polls. Unlike in England, there has not been an influx of Corbynites, and many CLPs have little or no life outside of often badly attended and boring monthly meetings, designed to drive away new activists.
Three days before the end of the leadership campaign, deputy leader Alex Rowley was suspended after his former partner had made a series of allegations about his behaviour, including allegations of bullying and abusive text messages.
Get her out of here?
Meanwhile, former Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale is off to an Australian jungle to take part in the latest series of “I’m a Celebrity – Get me Out of Here!”. Even hardened right-wingers are finding this too much to stomach.
Dugdale was elected leader in 2015, at a particularly low point in the party’s fortunes. The left was too weak even to stand a candidate. For taking on the leader’s post at that time, Dugdale does at least deserve some credit.
But in 2016 she backed Owen Smith against the “unelectable” Jeremy Corbyn. In the 2017 general election she ran a negative anti-SNP campaign rather than one based on the prospect of a Labour government. Corbyn received only a passing mention in the campaign.
Since resigning as leader, Dugdale has ramped up her criticisms of Corbyn. Sarwar supporters have portrayed her as the self-sacrificing leader who fell victim to an evil left-wing plot.
But the same day that Richard Leonard’s election victory in the leadership contest was announced, the media reported that Dugdale would be spending three weeks in an Australian jungle in a new series of “I’m a Celebrity – Get Me Out of Here!”.
According to “a party source” quoted by the BBC, this was:
“A fantastic opportunity to talk about (Labour) policies and Labour values on a widely watched show. I’m sure there will be huge support for her from Scottish viewers while she’s in the jungle. She’ll be back in time for the (Holyrood) budget.”
Even by the standards of an anonymous “party source” this rates as fantastic stupidity.
Labour attacked George Galloway for appearing in “Big Brother” instead of working for his then constituents. Labour Chief Whip Hilary Armstrong even launched a petition condemning him for failing to “represent and respect his constituents”.
Labour likewise criticised Nadine Dorries for the same reason when she appeared on “I’m a Celebrity”. The Tories themselves withdrew the whip from her for the duration of her appearance.
Labour also condemned Tommy Sheridan for appearing on “Big Brother”. (He was no longer an MSP, but he was still Tommy Sheridan.)
Why should Dugdale be treated any differently? In any case, “I’m a Celebrity” is not a “fantastic opportunity” to talk about Labour policies and values.
When Galloway complained about his political views being censored by “Big Brother”, the producer pointed out that, as Galloway had been told in advance, broadcasting rules meant that the programme “was not an opportunity for him to get on his soapbox”.
The media response to Dugdale’s decision – not discussed with party business managers – has certainly not boosted Labour policies and values. According to the Sun, which broke the story:
“Kezia Dugdale is the latest politician to ditch their voters in favour of life in the ‘I’m a Celebrity’ jungle. Former leader of the Scottish Labour Party follows in the footsteps of stay-away politicos George Galloway and Nadine Dorries.”
Even right-wingers have been genuinely horrified by Dugdale’s decision: “There are many ways to contribute to the struggle for democratic socialism. Flying ten thousand miles to eat kangaroo cocks with next year’s panto headliners isn’t one of them.”
That’s a tweet by Blair McDougall – the former head of “Better Together” whose election campaign in East Renfrewshire in June, fully supported by Kezia Dugdale, made Ian Murray’s look positively left-wing.