“I don’t believe in independence, I don’t want independence, I will never argue for independence. But we need to at least be part of the debate, showing that if there is to be a referendum in the future, if people in Scotland choose that – and it’s the people of Scotland’s choice to make – actually it doesn’t have to be a binary choice choice between ‘yes’ and ‘no’, ‘leave’ and ‘remain’,” Monica Lennon tells me. She broke the Scottish Labour whip in 2019 by abstaining on the SNP’s second independence referendum bill, rather than opposing it as instructed. Now running for the leadership, her views have made Labour’s approach to the Scottish constitutional question the most stark dividing line in the race.
Lennon explains that her party has “lost our confidence and our authority to go into our own communities and say, ‘we understand that many of you are pro-independence, or you might be leaning towards it, but actually there’s a better way’”. Her argument implies that a simple ‘no’ from Scottish Labour to the idea of holding a fresh vote on the issue amounts to a refusal to engage with reality. “If we’re not having the conversation, the debate will carry on without us. And we can’t continue to ignore 21 polls in a row now that show a majority for independence. We can’t just dismiss that,” she says.
“If in the future people in Scotland want a referendum, then that should be a matter for people in Scotland. It shouldn’t be up to Boris Johnson, or any future Prime Minister. I would hope that Keir [Starmer] would respect that. I’ve seen Keir being interviewed by Scottish journalists, being asked about Scotland, being asked about the constitution – it looks a wee bit uncomfortable. I think that should tell him something: that it’s better to let people in Scotland answer on these issues,” Lennon tells me.
The leadership candidate also believes, unlike her rival Anas Sarwar, that Scottish Labour should advocate for a third option in any future vote. “We left it to the SNP and the Tories to set the rules of the referendum for 2014. We shouldn’t do that again. So if there is a referendum, I will fight tooth and nail for that to be a multi-question referendum where enhanced devolution is on the ballot paper,” she tells me over Zoom. Sarwar’s position, as recently stated to me, is: “I want greater devolution. But I don’t think it needs to be tied to another referendum.” This difference of opinion is somewhat ironic, as Sarwar is a Brownite and Gordon Brown privately favoured a third option last time.
The former Prime Minister is currently heading Labour’s UK-wide constitutional commission, and Lennon has already made headlines in the contest by saying the party cannot rely on “party grandees getting wheeled out to preach to the nation”. When I ask whether she thinks he is the right person to be leading on the issue for Labour, Lennon says: “Well, Gordon Brown is hugely respected, and he’s a huge asset to the Scottish Labour Party. But I do think we have to think differently about how we get our message across. Who is it we are targeting?” She is concerned that this drive to save the union does not appeal to young people, women or small business owners.
Lennon doubts that a “top-down approach by itself, led by party grandees and elder statesmen” will be able to “connect” with everyone. “There’s a place for that,” she adds. “But we need to have a bottom-up approach that is rooted in our communities, our workplaces. And that’s where Scottish Labour has been lacking.” She touches on one of the key messages of her campaign: Scottish Labour has been angry with voters for turning to the SNP and has been “throwing stones” at the governing party, when instead it should be promoting a “modern message for the 2020s”.
“We spend too much time hoping that the SNP will just implode: one more scandal, one more row or Twitter spat in the SNP and there’s going to be this magic tipping point. That’s not the way it’s going to work. We have to earn people’s trust,” she tells me. And what’s her plan for doing that? Both candidates agree that Scottish Labour must focus on child poverty. But Lennon has a different angle on party organisation, describing the decision to scrap the community organising unit as “obviously worrying”. And asked whether she thinks the new UK leadership is being helpful to Scottish Labour, she says “there’s a lot more” they could do, from recognising that “the biggest threat to the union is Boris Johnson” to getting rid of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. To tackle Scotland’s drug death crisis, she is in favour of decriminalisation, but Starmer disagrees. Lennon says: “If we want to save the union, we need to show that we’re going to work together in solidarity to solve these problems.”
Lennon is best-known for her period poverty campaign, which – despite being waged in opposition – saw Scotland become the first country to provide free and universal access to period products. The lesson she wants Labour to learn from this is not only that the party has “the right policies” but also that they must be celebrated. When the bill passed in parliament, she was told the Scottish parliament’s post on it garnered more attention than any other, yet Scottish Labour made little fanfare of the win. Lennon says the SNP is good at talking up the life experiences of its MSPs and MPs, which Labour should do, too. “You don’t hear very often that Anas Sarwar was a dentist,” she points out. Lennon as health spokesperson has been warning of an “oral health disaster” during Covid but says “we should have been using Anas to talk about that”.
The Scottish Labour leadership hopeful is seen as the more left-wing candidate in the contest and, compared to Sarwar, the potential successor who is closer to Richard Leonard. But Lennon tells me: “I will be my own woman, and I’m really determined to show Scottish Labour in a new light. That is about actively listening, breaking out of the comfort zone. Absolutely yes, we’ll always listen to our members and the trade unions. But we have to take Labour’s message out to places where it might feel that we’re unwelcome. It might feel uncomfortable.” She says some young trade unionists who have left the party felt that Labour gatherings were “like being in the room of a Better Together meeting”.
Lennon sets out her stall as we come to the end of the interview. “I’ve shown in parliament that my politics is very practical. I’m not a tribal person, I will work with others to persuade them to get results, to get good outcomes for people. It is about showing that politics doesn’t need to be angry. It doesn’t always need to be about polished and well-rehearsed soundbites. It’s actually about being passionate, showing that you care about things,” she concludes. “I think politics needs to be done differently. People are just tired of hearing and seeing the same old, same old thing, and I am the candidate who’s never been part of the leadership team before. I’ve not been deputy leader or interim leader. I genuinely want to learn the lessons from the past, get out there and start winning again.”
LabourList has also interviewed leadership candidate Anas Sarwar.