Once again the Scottish Labour Party is in the midst of a leadership crisis after several MSPs tried to trigger a formal challenge to Richard Leonard. The fact that Labour in Scotland is going through a difficult period is not open for debate. Our performance in last year’s European elections and our current rating in opinion polls reflect a trend that, if continued, will see the effective extinction of Labour as a force in Scotland.
But is Leonard to blame for this? I have little doubt he accepts his share of the collective responsibility for this fall in Labour fortunes. But the decline started well before his leadership and left him in a position that no other post-devolution Labour leader has been in – neither head of the government nor leading the opposition. This has clearly undercut his ability to command media and public attention.
There appear to be two charges against Richard. First, that he is unknown; second, that his views are a turn-off to the electorate. Surely, they both cannot be true. If nobody knows him, how can his views be offending them? The irony is that the recent attacks on his leadership have actually given him a much bigger profile. What has come across is that he is a man who is likeable, intelligent and determined. Aren’t these the qualities that the electorate wants in a leader?
As for his views, it strikes me that Richard has been highlighting the very issues that Labour should be concentrating on right now – from opportunities for young people impacted by the pandemic to the need for a national care strategy for Scotland. He has also worked to keep climate change at the top of the agenda, and above all has set out policies to avoid a post-pandemic economic catastrophe. We must not let a focus on personality drown out the coherent programme Labour is developing for a fairer Scotland.
Many of those criticising Richard are friends, some of them exceptionally good friends. I understand their concerns. The party’s position is unquestionably precarious but changing the leader is no panacea for our problems. We have tried replacing leaders again and again in the past, to no avail. We’ve had leadership of all hues, but no matter the captain, the unity of the crew is required to stop the ship from hurtling on to the rocks. Instead of the preoccupation with change at the top, it’s time to focus on what we stand for as a party and unite behind those ideals.
Too many individuals in Labour have looked not to its wider interests but to their own idiosyncratic concerns. It is often said that Labour owes more to Methodism than to Marxism. I have started to think lately that we should instead turn to Buddhism. Everyone in the party should be encouraged to meditate and consider how their individual actions might contribute to a better whole. They should take to heart the Buddha’s message that there is no such thing as the self because we’re all dependent on each other. Or to put it another way, we are all in this together.