Analysis: Scottish Labour’s invisible man disappears for good

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RICHARD Leonard’s exit was, fittingly, less than inspiring. 

His MSPs found out at the same time as the rest of the country that the Scottish Labour leader had quit with immediate effect, many via social media. 

Four months after colleagues staged an abortive mutiny and pleaded with him to go, Mr Leonard belatedly decided that it was in the best interests of the party to leave barely 100 days before the Holyrood election.

It was typical of the stumbling and ineffectual operation the left-winger had overseen since beating moderate Anas Sarwar for the leadership in November 2017.

Scottish Labour’s ninth leader since devolution, Mr Leonard, a former trade union official who only entered Holyrood in 2016, won on the coattails of Jeremy Corbyn. He never got off them.

Indeed, the Central Scotland MSP never seemed to try, putting echoing his boss before developing a voice of his own.

When he did speak, listeners were often rewarded with a sepia-tinted lecture on his personal comfort zone – Labour party history and trade union arcana.

If Mr Leonard had a vote for every time he mentioned Mary Barbour and the great Glasgow rent strike of 1915 he’d be in Bute House by now.

Instead, the party has trundled along to little effect. 

Short on big ideas and eye-catching policies, Mr Leonard wrestled in vain with the independence question, coming out hard against Indyref2 when many Labour supporters started to warm to it.

He was also humiliated by London colleagues who needed to play footsie with the SNP before the 2019 election, and toyed with consenting to Indyref2.

At his best, he could be a forceful contributor at FMQs and Holyrood debates. But he was also unpredictable, capable of a striking performance one week, and a shocker the next. 

He was frequently mocked by Nicola Sturgeon, largely because he made it so easy for her.

Despite being his party’s second longest serving opposition leader after Iain Gray, Mr Leonard never cut through with the public.

To most voters he remained an enigma to the end, with polls showing few Scots knew enough about him to rate his performance. 

It showed at the ballot box.

In the 2019 European election, Scottish Labour lost both its MEPs and sank below 10 per cent to fifth place, while in that year’s general election the party lost all but one of its seven MPs. 

When Mr Corbyn quit and Sir Keir Starmer took over UK Labour early last year, Mr Leonard looked more isolated than ever, a remnant of a failed fantasy.

With polls indicating the party on 14% last autumn, four of his MSPs rebelled and urged him to go, but in a brief flash of public attention he clung on, before retreating back into anonymity.

Mr Leonard’s problems were not all of his own making.

 Richard Leonard quits: ‘Sneering traitors’ blamed for decision 

Scottish Labour’s decline has been a long one, with no quick fix in sight. But he did nothing to arrest it.

Ironically, he quit on a day when a poll showed his party edging ahead of the Scottish Tories. But that owed more to the Tories losing and plaudits for Mr Starmer, rather than anything acheived by the Scottish leader.

Sir Keir was known to want Mr Leonard out, but was fearful of a forced exit reviving the charge that Scottish Labour is just a “branch office” of London.

So did Mr Leonard jump or was he pushed? 

One Labour source, no fan, said he probably jumped, as he was so mulishly obstinate he couldn’t be pushed, despite other people’s best efforts.

The source said: “I think jumped because he was so adamant that he was not going last time.

“There were attempts to make him jump, but he was so stubborn and blinkered and convinced he was doing a good job, that he wouldn’t budge.”

Another source said Mr Leonard had walked because he had lost the support of the unions, the section of the Labour party closest to his heart.

There was particular pressure from the GMB, which realised a new incumbent was needed to take the party forward into the Holyrood campaign.

“The GMB coming out against him was significant,” said one senior Labour figure.

“He also realised that it was the best thing for the Labour party. My own wish is that he’d done it a bit earlier. 

“He’s liked. No one dislikes him. But he just hasn’t cut the mustard. You watch him at FMQs after Ruth Davidson’s tuner and you squirm. That’s the problem.”

However there were also reports last night that big Labour donors had threatened to withhold support unless Mr Leonard was shown the door.

Scottish Labour party now faces the unenviable task of finding someone to try to front it at the election.

Mr Leonard’s deputy Jackie Baillie is caretaker leader for now, and could do it if necessary.

A replacement could be found rapidly by consensus, with Mr Sarwar the MSP most likely to gather it. 

 Richard Leonard Quits: Candidates to be the next Scottish Labour leader

But the left of the party are also anxious to have a say, and a contest could see Monica Lennon stand.

As for Ms Sturgeon, she faces the delicious prospect of an election with both main opposition leaders being stand-ins, Ms Davidson for the Tories and Ms Baillie. 

Although if the Alex Salmond inquiry goes badly for the FM, the SNP might have a stand-in of its own.

 

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