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Richard Leonard MSP, centre, on the picket line with EIS members at Motherwell College. (Credit Richard Leonard Facebook page)

Left v right in the battle for Scottish Labour leader

Statement from Socialist Party Scotland 

Following Kezia Dugdale’s resignation as leader of the Scottish Labour Party, Socialist Party Scotland welcomes the announcement by Richard Leonard that he is to stand in the leadership contest. Leonard is an MSP, a member of the Campaign for Socialism, a former GMB industrial organiser and has a record of support for Jeremy Corbyn and left policies generally.

Indeed we have called on the Labour left to challenge the Blairite leadership in Scotland ever since Corbyn was elected as UK leader in 2015. Although this was mistakingly not done, now that Dugdale has resigned a major campaign to turn Scottish Labour into a fighting, left and anti-austerity party must now be launched.

The election will be a contest between Richard Leonard and the Blairite millionaire Anas Sarwar. Both Sarwar and Kezia Dugdale called on Jeremy Corbyn to resign as UK leader in 2016 as part of the attempted coup by the Labour right to force Corbyn out. These actions alone should have led to a challenge to remove them from their positions.

Crucial conjuncture

The contest for Scottish Labour leader comes at a crucial conjuncture. The SNP have seen their support fall dramatically, most recently at the June general election when they lost 21 of their 56 MPs. A big space to the left of the SNP has opened up and with the correct policies and approach an anti-austerity and left Labour Party in Scotland could make major gains. Indeed Labour’s partial recovery in Scotland in June – from 1 to 7 MPs – was due entirely to the Corbyn factor. However, it was hampered enormously by a completely wrong policy on Scottish independence and opposition in principle to an indyref 2.

By no means is this contest a straightforward one. Labour’s membership in Scotland has not seen the surge in membership of pro-Corbyn workers and young people witnessed in other parts of the UK, in large part because of Labour’s disastrous policy on the national question and its continued right wing leadership. Scotland was the only area where Owen Smith, Corbyn’s right wing challenger, won in the 2016 contest.

Anas Sarwar will also claim that he now supports Corbyn and the election of a Labour government led by him. However the Scottish Labour leader will have a seat on the Labour’s National Executive, which is hostile to Corbyn and acts as a block to changing Labour’s rules and constitution. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell must state openly that Richard Leonard is their preferred candidate and call for support for him.

Transform Labour to the left

Nevertheless, a fighting campaign by Richard Leonard and the left in the Labour Party and the trade unions can defeat the pro-capitalist right represented by Sarwar. To achieve it Leonard needs to put forward a clear and unambiguos case for the transformation of Scottish Labour into a democratic and socialist party. Central to this is that full rights must given to party members and the trade unions to be able to deselect MPs, MSPs and councillors who fail to fight cuts and refuse to defend left policies and seek to undermine Corbyn. He should support the opening up of the Labour Party for affiliation and membership rights for all left, socialist and anti-austerity forces, including those previously expelled like Socialist Party Scotland, formerly Militant for their socialist policies.

Richard Leonard’s campaign should also stand on the policy of unions like Unison, Unite and others who campaign for councils to set no-cuts needs budgets. There is nothing more damaging for Labour than if, like the SNP, their elected representatives continually vote to pass-on Tory austerity. Labour’s collapse in Glasgow and across the west of Scotland is rooted in the domination of the right wing for decades.

For this reason it’s not just a question of defeating the Blairite right wing in this leadership contest, but of a root-and-branch transformation of the Labour in Scotland. Labour is still, despite Corbyn’s successes, two parties in one. The Richard Leonard campaign, if it is taken across Scotland to Labour Party members and into the trade unions, with public meetings, through social media and on the streets, can lay the basis for that transformation.

National question

A major obstacle to Labour’s recovery in Scotland is still their outright blanket opposition to independence. As we wrote recently: “continuing to oppose independence outright and a second referendum is a huge barrier to winning over the many anti-austerity workers and young people who are attracted to Corbyn’s left policies.” Unfortunately, Richard Leonard campaigned for a No vote in the 2014 referendum.

Moreover, he comes from the wing of the Labour left who believes that Scottish independence must be opposed as a point of principle. Leonard has argued against independence because it would mean withdrawing “democratically and politically from Britain: the level where corporate power is organised. The real test of democracy is not nationhood but whether we can shift power from those who own the wealth in the economy to those who create it.”

In essence both he and the Labour left see the national question as a binary choice; class or nation. But this is a complete misreading of the reasons why 1.6 million people, overwhelmingly working class, voted for independence in 2014.

The eruption of class anger around independence was just that, a working class revolt against the establishment and austerity through the prism of the national question. Indeed it was the more affluent, conservative, middle class and rural parts of Scotland plus the older generations who in the main voted No. If Leonard wins, and we hope he does and will advocate a vote for him, he and the Labour left will need to change this approach if Labour is be a party that fights for the interests of the working class.

Despite these criticisms, we would therefore appeal to Labour Party members and trade unionists, if they have a vote through their affiliated unions, to back Richard Leonard.