Scottish Labour's New Vision

Richard Leonard's victory over Anas Sarwar is a significant moment in Scottish Labour's history, signalling a shift towards adopting Jeremy Corbyn's UK-wide programme. Alasdair Clark argues Scottish socialists on both sides of the constitutional divide to consider rejoining Labour...

At the launch of his campaign for Scottish Labour leader, Richard Leonard spoke to reporters about the fear he and many of his party colleagues had that “a generation of young radicals” had been lost. Nine weeks later, he has won his leadership bid with a clear 56.7% of the vote. Maybe it's time for those young radicals to look again at Scottish Labour.

Young left wing activists who overwhelmingly backed independence have made many attempts to define themselves in terms of party politics. RISE, borne out of the Radical Independence Campaign, ultimately didn't meet its electoral ambition, and many socialists have never quite felt comfortable in the SNP.

But for a long time, Scottish Labour has undeniably not been the natural home for those socialists either. After flirting with “ultra-blairite” Jim Murphy in the aftermath of 2014, when the most inspiring policy the party could muster was allowing tinnies at football matches, it's little surprise that many couldn't bring themselves to feel comfortable about Scottish Labour (even after the surprise election of Jeremy Corbyn). Leonard’s election marks a change in course, but more than that, the circumstances exist to change the party.

The dividing line in politics remains independence, but most people accept that, for people like Richard Leonard, the reasons for his No vote were the same as what drove many to vote Yes. It wasn’t any natural belief in unionism, just as RIC was never about nationalism. Leonard came to a natural conclusion of the best way to achieve the things socialists care about.

So whilst disagreement will remain about the answer to the constitutional future, under Richard Leonard’s leadership Scottish Labour will be the home for socialists who want to achieve the political aims so many of us spoke about in 2014 - a radically altered Scotland.

Leonard’s campaign was unashamedly radical: it focused on the rights of the worker and their relationship with capital. Leonard also promised a re-balancing of the economy, not by just vaguely promising fairness but by following Corbyn's maxim that it should come under the democratic control of the many.

In fact, much of Leonard’s manifesto was reminiscent of the one produced by RISE in the 2016 Scottish Parliament Elections, and what wasn’t perfect was made clear as open for change. Socialist campaign groups within Scottish Labour, such as Momentum and Campaign for Socialism, created the circumstances for a manifesto with those policies to win. 

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There will doubtless be further challenges and battles to be had, and Leonard’s victory alone will not solve decades of centrist erosion to the core of what Labour should stand for. But his victory does present a unique opportunity for a complete rebuilding of Scottish Labour, back towards the party that was once embedded into the core of working-class communities and represented their interest, completely unrecognisable from the one which elected Jim Murphy.

It would be all to easy to spectate from the outside, to point out the obvious flaws and criticise the setbacks and failures there will undoubtedly be, but Corbyn’s victory at a UK level and Leonard’s in Scotland represent a project by the left which has a distance to travel but is starting to see gains.

Instead of investing energy into new electoral parties which connects with working-class people and delivers socialist policy, I believe that incredible energy created in 2014 should be harnessed to fundamentally changing Scottish Labour. It doesn’t require a hold-your-nose mentality to negative aspects, it requires an ability to be part of the project winning the arguments against those negatives.

This is important: we have the opportunity to re-create a Scottish Labour that stands for what we believe in, but only if we are ready to take on the responsibility of doing the work that needs doing to achieve it.

@alasdair_clark