Richard Leonard, leader of Scottish Labour, has stood down from the post with immediate effect this afternoon – ahead of Holyrood elections in May – as he says the decision is “in the best interests of the party”.
The opposition leader, who has held the role since November 2017, said: “I have come to the conclusion it is in the best interests of the party that I step aside as leader of Scottish Labour with immediate effect.”
Describing speculation about his leadership as a “distraction” from Labour’s message, he added: “This was not an easy decision, but after three years I feel it is the right one for me and for the party.”
Shadow cabinet member Anas Sarwar, who unsuccessfully ran against Leonard for the leadership in 2017, is among those being touted as potential successors, as well as health spokesperson Monica Lennon.
Deputy leader Jackie Baillie is now interim leader. Scottish Labour chair Cara Hilton has said the procedures committee that will oversee the election of a new leader has been formed and will hold its first meeting on Friday.
The Scottish executive committee will “meet in the coming days to agree a timetable for electing Richard’s successor”, Hilton said. LabourList understands that the contest is likely to be held sooner rather than later.
Leonard’s resignation comes as Scottish Labour finds itself predicted to win just 18% of the vote in the Holyrood elections, possibly placing third behind the SNP and the Conservatives, according to recent polling.
In recent weeks, general secretary Michael Sharpe and deputy general secretary Anne McGinley both resigned from their key posts despite Scottish parliamentary elections being scheduled to take place in the coming months.
One source told LabourList that Leonard was “jumping before he was pushed”. It is thought the Scottish Labour leader no longer had the necessary support on the Scottish executive committee for him to continue in post.
Leonard avoided losing a vote of no confidence in September, when such a motion was withdrawn at a special meeting of the party’s ruling body. He survived then thanks to trade union reps who decided to “give him more time”.
But Ian Miller – a Co-operative Party representative on the SEC – died in November last year, which shifted the balance of the SEC in favour of Leonard’s internal critics. GMB and Usdaw also strengthened their opposition to Leonard.
Responding to Leonard’s resignation, Keir Starmer said: “I would like to thank Richard for his service to our party and his unwavering commitment to the values he believes in.
“Richard has led Scottish Labour through one of the most challenging and difficult periods in our country’s history, including a general election and the pandemic. Even from opposition he has achieved a considerable amount for which he should be very proud.
“This includes securing a commitment for the creation of a national care service, securing action on a Jobs Guarantee Scheme to deal with youth unemployment, securing a human-rights based public inquiry into the treatment of care home residents during the Covid pandemic and securing support for a Fair Rents Bill to give new rights to tenants.
“He has done so with dedication to the values of our movement. I wish Richard the very best for the future as one of our MSPs and know that he will continue to play an important role in Scottish Labour.”
MSP Neil Findlay said: “Looks like those who have led a three year campaign of briefings to journalists, leaks of private conversations and the constant feeding of stories to the media to bring down a decent and honest man have succeeded. These flinching cowards and sneering traitors make me sick.”
Campaign for Socialism and Momentum said they “remain resolute that we should go into the May election with the socialist policies that Scotland needs” and there “must be no backtracking” on policies adopted under Leonard.
Scottish Labour interim leader Jackie Baillie said: “I thank Richard for his service to our party and his genuine commitment to the values we all hold dear.
“Scottish Labour has set the agenda for Scotland’s recovery from the pandemic, forcing the SNP government to commit to a National Care Service and a youth jobs guarantee. We face the fight of our lives in the run-up to the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections. But as we fight for every vote and seat, we will come together to hold the SNP and Tories to account for their record of failure.
“I know Richard will continue to work hard to campaign for a Scottish Labour government as an MSP, and as our lead candidate in Central Scotland in the Scottish Parliament elections.”
Baillie said: “I thank Richard for his service to our party and his genuine commitment to the values we all hold dear. Scottish Labour has set the agenda for Scotland’s recovery from the pandemic, forcing the SNP government to commit to a National Care Service and a youth jobs guarantee.
“We face the fight of our lives in the run-up to the 2021 Scottish parliament elections. But as we fight for every vote and seat, we will come together to hold the SNP and Tories to account for their record of failure.
“I know Richard will continue to work hard to campaign for a Scottish Labour government as an MSP, and as our lead candidate in Central Scotland in the Scottish parliament elections.”
Scottish First Minister and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon commented: “Despite our political differences, I’ve always liked Richard Leonard. He is a decent guy and I wish him well for the future.”
Below is the full text of Richard Leonard’s statement.
Scotland needs a Labour government now more than ever before. Our National Health Service and public services are at breaking point under the strain of an out-of-control pandemic. Covid is rampant, claiming lives, and striking down so many of our fellow citizens, who are grievously suffering from this awful virus. Workers’ incomes are being squeezed like never before, with job losses rife and businesses going bust. Too many employees go to work day-in and day-out, night-in and night-out leaving them vulnerable to the virus.
Both governments have mishandled its response to Covid, with devastating consequences not least in our care homes. It is essential now that we have an accelerated vaccine roll out – 24 hours a day, seven days a week – to ensure that the most vulnerable and frontline workers are protected against Covid, and that the general population is given greater protection as quickly as possible after that.
I have thought long and hard over the Christmas period about what this crisis means, and the approach Scottish Labour takes to help tackle it. I have also considered what the speculation about my leadership does to our ability to get Labour’s message across. This has become a distraction.
I have come to the conclusion it is in the best interests of the party that I step aside as leader of Scottish Labour with immediate effect. This was not an easy decision, but after three years I feel it is the right one for me and for the party.
I want to thank all those people who placed their hopes in me, and who worked with me in good times and bad. This experience and the great people I have met will live with me forever. I owe a huge debt in particular to all those party members who work tirelessly for the cause of Labour.
I retain my faith in the Labour Party as the party that offers hope to people and that remains the only vehicle for the realisation of that hope. Whilst I step down from the leadership today, the work goes on, and I will play my constructive part as an MSP in winning support for Labour’s vision of a better future in a democratic economy and a socialist society.