Richard Leonard faces a motion of no confidence in his leadership at a Scottish executive committee (SEC) meeting kicking off at 10.30am tomorrow. The move comes after James Kelly MSP quit the Scottish Labour frontbench and several other MSPs publicly called on Leonard to resign, saying they have no confidence in his ability to lead the party into the May 2021 Holyrood elections.
The defiant leader has refused to go. He has instead vowed to “fulfil the mandate” of members who elected him, described questioning his leadership now as an “act of sabotage” and made clear that deselections will be on the cards. These criticisms are proof that these Labour MSPs are “inward-looking” and “that calls into question whether some of these people are the best people to stand for the Labour Party next year”, Leonard shot back. But could this motion make a difference?
The first important aspect of this story is that the SEC motion would not be binding if passed. This is not a direct route to triggering a leadership election, but a way of piling on the pressure. As part of that, the move seeks to smoke out Leonard’s quieter opponents, with the GMB and Usdaw reps on the SEC being identified as swing voters. (One of the two Usdaw reps, Jackie Martin, has signed the motion but the other hasn’t.) Leonard’s critics would see GMB joining their side as a big coup: the leader worked for 20 years as a GMB Scotland organiser.
Leonard allies say this is really about the regional list selection plans, and creating chaos in order to distract the leadership from them – hence the Scottish leader’s talk of deselection. Ahead of the May elections, candidates need to be chosen. Ordinary members get to vote on candidates for their regional list, and the left reckon some of Leonard’s key MSP opponents won’t fare well. This is compounded by a battle over the leadership-backed proposal for women automatically to top each one of those ‘zipped’ (alternated by gender) lists. (This excludes leader and deputy leader, who are automatically at the top of theirs.) Martin McCluskey’s LabourList article in June touched on this disagreement.
The proposal on regional list selections has developed since then. LabourList’s understanding is that the leadership still wants women to top lists, but there will also be reserved places for other protected characteristics – and for key workers, too. The key worker idea came about partly as a result of the dissent over the past couple of weeks, and to highlight the argument that people shouldn’t be trying to topple the leader in the middle of a pandemic. But there isn’t clarity so far on what constitutes a key worker. One Leonard critic cheerfully suggested that MSPs could actually be classified as such.
Leonard’s opponents flatly deny that these leadership battles relate to candidate selections, and say they genuinely want a leadership challenge to take place. The thinking is that if the SEC approves the no-confidence motion, or it falls narrowly, Leonard will give in to calls for his resignation – and if he doesn’t, things will get messy. The factions disagree on whether a mechanism for triggering a Scottish Labour leadership challenge actually exists as there is no provision for it in the Scottish rulebook. Leonard’s critics say the default is the UK rulebook, which would mean a challenge could go ahead if backed by 20% of parliamentarians, i.e. five MSPs (or four MSPs and Ian Murray). But so far, no consensus on that point. Until the Holyrood elections, Scottish Labour’s stalemate has the potential to end only if there is a truly overwhelming show of support for Leonard tomorrow, or there isn’t and he goes. Neither looks very likely.