Leadership Election: Scottish Labour Moving Left

By Amy Dean, Glasgow
The Scottish Labour leadership election came as something of a surprise to political commentators, and indeed Labour party members and representatives, across the country. Kezia Dugdale’s resignation on 29th August did not come after an embarrassing election result or in the midst of controversy. Rather, following the calamitous result in 2015, the June general election actually saw a partial recovery with the party returning seven MPs north of the border and increasing their vote by three percentage points. At the time of her resignation Dugdale cited personal reasons and a feeling that it was time to pass the baton on to someone else, though it has been speculated that she had come under criticism from the left-wing of the party for her lack of support for UK leader Jeremy Corbyn.

The campaign has now been going on since September with voting starting at the end of October and results to be announced on 18th November. The two candidates are Anas Sarwar, a well-known figure in the party establishment and previous vice-chair of the right-wing Progress organisation, and Richard Leonard, an MSP on the left of the party who worked in the trade union movement for many years before being elected to Holyrood in 2016. Despite claims that Dugdale was pushed out by the left of the party it seems her resignation came as a surprise to them too, as two preferred candidates – Neil Findlay and Alex Rowley – both ruled themselves out before the less experienced Leonard agreed to take on the mantle.


On the face of it this echoes the UK leadership election last year between Corbyn and Owen Smith as a battle between a left and right-wing candidate. Indeed, many left-wing Labour members and supporters are hoping this is the opportunity for the Scottish party to finally follow Corbyn’s shift to the left, something that was prevented under the leadership of Dugdale. As with the majority of the “centre ground” parliamentary Labour party, she participated in the mutiny against Cobyn and supported Owen Smith at the 2016 leadership election.


The tone of the campaign so far has been interesting and reflective of the shift to the left of the Labour party under Corbyn’s leadership. Despite having previously been critical, Sarwar has presented himself as supportive of Corbyn and on the centre-left of the party. This reflects the fact that even careerists in the party have had to accept the popularity of Corbyn following his success at the general election earlier this year.


Overall news reports on the campaign have focused more on scandal than policy debate. Despite a leadership election that, unlike those of the past, should promise a real ideological battle on the way forward for Scottish Labour, it does not appear to have managed to enthuse a large layer of the population. It is estimated that 1,600 people have joined Scottish Labour to vote in the leadership election, this compares to over 100,000 people having joined to vote in the 2016 UK leadership election.


This reflects the fact that despite an improved election performance, which can be almost entirely attributed to Corbyn’s leadership and left-wing policy, Scottish Labour is still far from enthusing young and working class people in the way that Corbyn’s Labour has south of the border. Whilst the SNP does not enjoy the popularity it once did, having lost 21 MPs at the June general election, this has not simply transferred to Labour. Labour did gain six MPs earlier this year, but the Tories gained far more at 12, on the basis of a heavily Unionist campaign. Another significant factor was growing apathy, which may have particularly affected those young and working class people who had felt enthused by the SNP in 2015, as turnout fell by five percentage points.With 35 MSPs and a membership of over 100,000, the SNP is still a far bigger party than Scottish Labour. The Scottish working class has not just turned wholly back to Labour after having rejected the party so spectacularly following years of taking votes for granted and crony Blairism.


In terms of the scandals of the leadership campaign; this has mainly focused around Sarwar’s wealthy background and his family’s business along with claims of vote rigging. Sarwar’s new left wing stance and resonance with working class people has been called into question given that his own family’s firm does not recognise trade unions and also doesn’t pay the living wage advocated by Scottish Labour. It has also been pointed out that despite his supposed focus on public services, Sarwar actually sends his children to the same £10,000+ per year private school that he himself attended. He has been at pains to distance himself from his family’s business, even going so far as to relinquish all his shares.


The right of the party have also attempted to accuse the left of vote rigging and bias. This has included claims that text messages sent by the Unite trade union encouraging members to sign up for as supporters so that they can vote for Leonard amount to vote rigging. Doubtlessly this has arisen from fear within the party establishment that Leonard may actually win. Unite claim they have recruited 2,500 as registered supporters of Scottish Labour in order that they can vote in the leadership election. Nine out of ten trade unions that have made supporting nominations have backed Leonard. He has also received the support of 43 constituencies compared to Sarwar’s 16.


On the basis of these figures Leonard certainly looks to be the more likely victor. Although it is important to note that it is unclear how many members turned out to constituency nomination meetings and figures within the Sarwar campaign claim that Leonard’s vote against protesting the triggering of Article 50 has unsettled many members. Indeed Sarwar has been very keen to brand himself as the pro-EU candidate.


If Leonard does win the election it will undoubtedly signal a welcome leftward move within the Scottish Labour party. Whether or not it will mean a transformation of the party’s fortunes in Scotland remains unclear, to a certain extent it depends on what happens within the SNP. If the SNP were to move left or if, as discussed in previous articles, a left/right split was to be triggered within the party this would likely impact on Labour’s future fortunes. On the other hand if the SNP sticks to a more pro-establishment politics with very little change this could benefit Labour, particularly under a left-wing, Leonard leadership. However, as said, it seems unlikely that this is a process that will happen over night as many remain wary of a party they feel was happy to take their vote and give them nothing in return for decades.


Currently Scottish politics appears to be at something of an impasse, the movement of working class and young people from 2014/15 around independence has quietened and neither the SNP or Labour are inspiring enthusiasm in large layers. The exact future remains unknown. However, what is clear is that a radical political movement of working and young people in Scotland will emerge again. None of the contradictions, frustrations and inequalities that fuelled the independence movement have been fixed. Across Scotland and the wider world people remain exploited by capitalism and subject to a system where they are forced to pay through wage and service cuts for a crisis that was not of their making. In Scotland as with everywhere else this cannot fail to express itself in radical movements against the ruling class and their status quo.


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