Richard Leonard resigned as Scottish Labour Party leader on 14 January, only four months after surviving a vote of no-confidence, and just four months before the next Holyrood (Scottish Parliament) election.
There are three (overlapping) versions of why he resigned.
Version one (The Times): Labour Party donors, including William Haughey (West of Scotland businessman) and Robert Latham (who donated £100,000 to Starmer’s leadership campaign) threatened to withold funding unless Leonard stepped down.
Version two (LabourList): The "balance of power" shifted on the Scottish Labour Executive Committee (EC), with the GMB and a new Co-op representative saying that they would oppose Leonard in the event of a new no-confidence motion.
Version Three (miscellaneous): Starmer forced out Leonard, partly because of Scottish Labour’s ongoing poor polling, and particularly because of Leonard’s criticisms of Labour MPs in Westminster backing the Tories’ Brexit deal.
Whatever the precise details, and whatever the weight of the individual factors in each of these versions, what is clear is that Leonard was forced out in an anti-democratic coup. As Labour MSP Neil Findlay put it in an article in Tribune:
“This week showed us everything that is wrong with the party I love. People who have spent three years repeatedly undermining, briefing against, and openly attacking the Scottish leader Richard Leonard finally won their war of attrition, and he resigned.”
Last September’s attempt to oust Leonard failed because it was subject to some degree of democracy and accountability.
A motion of no confidence in Leonard was tabled for a meeting of the Scottish Labour Executive Committee (by EC members who had no mandate to do so from those whom they supposedly represented).
A week of lobbying by opponents of the attempted coup and lengthy arguments, especially by (most) trade union delegates, at the EC meeting itself resulted in the withdrawal of the motion of no confidence, after the right wing realised that they would lose.
Last week’s coup overturned the outcome of that EC meeting. And it did so through behind-the-scenes pressure from a handful of people with no mandate to oust Leonard, and with neither the guts nor the integrity to attempt to obtain one.
Getting rid of Leonard and replacing him with MSP Anas Sarwar, runs the right-wing argument, will reverse Scottish Labour’s electoral fortunes.
But Sarwar is the son of a millionaire businessman and sends his children to a private school. Part of his income comes from the family business, which neither pays the National Living Wage nor recognises a trade union (although, with another leadership bid imminent, that may now change).
Sarwar was Scottish Labour deputy leader at the time of the disastrous “Better Together” Labour-Tory alliance at the time of the 2014 referendum. Albeit late in the day, Leonard sacked him from the Holyrood front bench for briefing against him.
Sarwar and those who share his politics (which anyway are secondary to his unbridled careerism) bear the blame for Scottish Labour’s long-term decline over the past two decades. Yet Starmer thinks that elevating Sarwar will restore Scottish Labour’s credibility?
And Starmer’s own leadership has itself added to Scottish Labour’s plight.
Labour MPs in Westminster abstained on the Overseas Operations Bill and the SpyCops Bill, and voted for the Tories’ Brexit deal. The SNP, on the other hand, voted against all of them.
Given that Scotland voted 66% in favour of Remain, Leonard would have been at fault if he had not criticised Labour support for the Tories’ Brexit Britain. But Starmer thinks that such criticisms mean that Leonard had to go?
Leonard was a weak leader. He was far too conciliatory towards the right wing. And while he sought to conciliate the right wing, the latter got on with engineering his removal. The lesson of Leonard’s removal is clear:
Just as many Labour Party right-wingers preferred a Tory government to a (vaguely left) Corbyn government, so too the Scottish Labour right wing is more concerned with boosting their own egos than rebuilding Scottish Labour as a credible electoral and class-struggle force.