The pressure on Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard to stand down has escalated as Scottish Labour MSP James Kelly has quit the shadow cabinet and called for his resignation.
In a letter on Tuesday evening, Kelly told Leonard: “I have no confidence in your ability to shape the party’s message, strategy and organisation. I know that this is a view shared by other parliamentarians, party members and indeed many members of the public.”
Tweeting the letter, he added: “I have resigned from the Scottish Labour shadow cabinet. I am saying publicly today what I have said to Richard privately. I sincerely believe that if we are to reverse our fortunes Richard must stand down.”
Kelly, one of the MSPs for Glasgow, had been Scottish Labour’s spokesperson for justice since September 2019, and served as the spokesperson for finance for nearly two years before that.
Leonard said: “It is deeply disappointing that disgruntled MSPs who never supported my leadership would choose the day when the Scottish government finally accepted a Labour policy demand of ten years – for a National Care Service – to try and wage an internal war.”
The leader’s comment on the resignation referred to the announcement by Nicola Sturgeon on Monday that the SNP government would take “the first step on the road to a National Care Service” as part of its Programme for Government.
Leonard had called on the SNP to create a state-run National Care Service, particularly after polling indicated that 92% of people in Scotland think their social care system is not working properly.
He told the Daily Record: “I am leading Scottish Labour into the 2021 elections on a platform of building a National Care Service, establishing a quality Jobs Guarantee Scheme and reviving Scotland’s economy with a Green New Deal.
“If any party representative thinks an internal faction fight is more important than this agenda, they will have to answer to the party members and the voters whom we serve.”
Although the SNP has been criticised for the Covid care homes crisis in Scotland, and other aspects of its approach to the pandemic, it is currently polling very well and has a 27-37% lead.
Kelly’s letter confirmed that he had already told Leonard to stand down in a private meeting, saying: “I outlined my view that to reverse the party’s decline it was necessary for you to resign as leader.
“You responded by saying you wished to remain in post as you believed you could reverse our poor position in the polls. In the past three weeks, I have watched your performance closely.
“The position of the party continues to decline not improve. Recent polling shows Scottish Labour support at an unacceptably low level of 14%. This has been a worrying and consistent trend for some time.”
“In addition, your personal polling ratings are particularly low. More than half of the public have no opinion on you and you have a negative rating even among our own supporters.
“Such poor ratings would produce a catastrophic result from which the party would struggle to recover. Coming a poor third in the election would be letting down those who rely on Scottish Labour to provide a strong voice.
“I see no evidence of a clear plan to reverse the party’s fortunes. The situation has been apparent for some time and you have failed to turn things around.
“It is clear that after nearly three years in charge you are not able to take the party forward. I firmly and sincerely believe that is in the best interests of the party that you stand down as leader.”
North East Scotland MSP Jenny Marra and Edinburgh Southern MSP Daniel Johnson have also joined calls for Leonard to resign, saying that he “cannot lead us” and “it is time to recognise the situation we are in”.
MSP Neil Findlay, who is on the party’s left and last year broke the whip by abstaining on a second independence referendum bill, tweeted to defended Leonard and describe the internal opposition as “treachery with a snarl”.
Findlay said: “Anyone who believes all the plotting and front stabbing of @LabourRichard is about ANYTHING other than list selections placings is on cloud cuckoo land – it is the ONLY thing that matters to the paranoid plotters – pathetic”.
Momentum national coordinating group member Rory Maclean said: “These people are traitors to the Labour movement. They should be expelled and replace for the next Holyrood election. Momentum will see to it that we return real socialists to Holyrood.”
Other left-wing Scottish activists have said that Scottish Labour’s problems did not start with the leadership of either Jeremy Corbyn or of Leonard, and their struggles now should be seen in the context of a long-term decline.
A YouGov poll for The Times last month put support for Labour at 14% in Holyrood’s constituency and list vote, and found that 53% of voters could not recognise Leonard.
Update, 11.30am: Leonard has told the BBC that this “frankly calls into question whether some of these people are the best people to stand for the Labour Party in the elections next year”.