Interviewing Richard Leonard in his modest Holyrood office is a bit like taking a history lesson on the British Labour party. The talk of Brexit, independence and the current challenges for Scottish Labour is interspersed with references to everyone from Keir Hardie to RH Tawney and from John Smith to socialist writer – and wartime minister – Thomas Johnston.
If that comes as a bit of a surprise to those who would caricature the Scottish Labour leader as a representative of Corbyn’s upstart Labour party, then it shouldn’t, says Leonard. “I eschew being called a Corbynista because I’ve been in the Labour party for 30-odd years,” he says. “The Corbyn phenomenon is quite a recent one so I don’t see myself being part of that new tradition which has been established – I see myself as being part of a longer standing radical tradition.”
Radicalism for Leonard means – and here he turns to another historical reference – harnessing the ‘spirit of 45’ to rebuild public services and end the impact of austerity. “We need to think big and act radically in the way that that generation did in the creation of the NHS,” he says.
“Out there people are hungry for change – a lot of people are disempowered, discontented and are looking for a Labour party to start to meet their aspirations, to start to offer them hope and to start to be the vehicle for the realisation of that hope. That’s what I want the Scottish Labour party to be.”
Yet the party faces an uphill battle: despite a better than expected general election result last year after the disaster of 2015, Labour now sits in third place in Scotland. Leonard therefore faces the tricky task of winning back both those voters who felt the SNP were a more radical force than Labour and those who have switched to the Conservatives, perhaps seeing them as the best defenders of the union and the strongest opposition to the nationalists. On the first part of the task, Leonard is firm that the SNP’s radicalism is an illusion.
“We turn that [perception] around by pointing out that the SNP has been in power in Scotland for more than a decade and the fundamental question then to be posed is ‘what’s changed in that time?’ How much land has transferred over from aristocratic ownership to community ownership, what changes have there been in the economy, where are we on questions like the extent of poverty and inequality? On all of those counts things have not got better, they’ve got worse,” he says.
“So how does the Labour party become the radical party, or the insurgent party? I think it’s by offering a prospectus of change, offering a prospectus based on a vision of a different kind of society.”
On the second part of the challenge, winning over those who have shifted to the Conservatives, Leonard says holding a firm line on the continuing debate over Scottish independence is crucial.
“We oppose a second independence referendum because we’ve just had one. I don’t take with a pinch of salt the claim that it was a once in a lifetime referendum – I genuinely think it was a once in a generation referendum,” he says.
“So I’m clear that, under my leadership, the Scottish Labour party will oppose any moves for a second independence referendum. On that question we need to be clearer than maybe we have been. But all of my experience tells me that if we are going to win back people who have drifted towards voting Conservative then we are also going to have to win the moral argument, one articulated in the past by people like John Smith, which is that poverty and inequality doesn’t just diminish those people facing poverty and inequality but it also diminishes all of us as society.”
While he might oppose a second independence referendum, Leonard wants to see the devolution resettlement revisited, to ensure that it can achieve what those who fought for it had aimed for. The idea behind a Scottish parliament, he stresses, was not merely to create an institution to “replace the role of half a dozen Tory ministers in the Scottish office” but to build a “vehicle for change” which could address long-term problems around the Scottish economy, housing, local government, health and education. “After 20 years of devolution, we are at a point where it’s reasonable to take stock and review what was after all essentially Labour’s devolution project and whether or not it has lived up to the expectations that those of us who campaigned for it had hoped for,” he says. He cites the issue of land reform – “a totemic issue in the Scottish psyche going back to the Highland clearances and before” – as evidence that it has not.
“The SNP just backtracked on that whole land reform agenda – a radical start by Labour was then muted and frankly reversed to the point where there’s been very little progress on land reform since they took office,” he says.
“It’s for that kind of policy that the Scottish parliament was created and it’s not achieved the level of reform that most of us would have expected.” But isn’t the case for full independence stronger now that Brexit is on the horizon? And shouldn’t Scottish Labour fight against a Brexit which will not only harm Scotland but which the majority of its people opposed? Leonard says not.
“I campaigned for a remain vote: one because I believe leaving the EU will provide an economic shock but secondly because I was extremely concerned by the xenophobia of the leave campaign and all that stood for and what I thought frankly were racist undertones to what they were doing,” he explains.
“But in the end we had a referendum in 2014 that said Scotland should stay part of the UK and the franchise for the referendum on Brexit was the UK and at that level people voted by a slim majority to exit so my simple principled position is that we need to respect both referendum results.”
He adds, though, that the way the Conservatives are going about trying to ‘hoard’ all the powers repatriated from Brussels in Westminster and Whitehall is anathema to anyone who believes in devolution. “As things stand the Scottish Labour party would vote against any legislative consent motion which sought to pave the way for the withdrawal bill,” he says.
Such is the chaos surrounding the Brexit negotiations that a satisfactory deal coming back is unlikely, Leonard believes.
“At that point, because there’s now going to be a meaningful vote in parliament, I think there’s a strong possibility that that deal will be voted down which I think would precipitate a constitutional crisis,” he says. “It would be back in that ultimatum territory like in 1974 of ‘who runs Britain?’ and ‘back us or sack us’. I think the pressure would be sufficiently great at that point for there to be an election and that’s a much more likely scenario than a second referendum.”
If Leonard is right and there is a snap general election, he’ll be working hard to consolidate the shift towards Labour that he says he’s already seeing on the ground. If he’s wrong, the next target will be the 2021 Scottish elections. Given the turnover of Labour leaders in Scotland – there have been six leadership elections in a decade and since devolution the party has gone through more leaders than the SNP and Tories combined – it is perhaps not surprising that, just a few months in from winning the leadership last November, he has already faced questions about how long he will be in the job, as well as raised eyebrows over his relative inexperience as an elected politician. He says he is out to prove the doubters wrong. “When I was standing for the leadership, people said the one thing we’re looking for is longevity. I said ‘I’ll give you longevity.’” he says. “I see this as being a chance to take the Labour party from third to first place. One of the things I think has impaired us at times in the past has been when we simply try to set ourselves up as a strong opposition. If we don’t believe in ourselves why would we expect anyone else to believe in us and vote for us? We will stand in that 2021 election offering people the opportunity of voting for a Labour government, not a strong opposition to the SNP or an alternative voice to the Tories, but a distinctive Labour government with a great sense of the things we want to change.”
The key battlegrounds for that distinctive Scottish Labour message, Leonard suggests, include the economy, where he wants more accountability, a greater influence for trade unions and more employee ownership, and better public services, with investment in schools, hospitals, public health and a bold plan for a socialised care service. To achieve all of that, he has already signalled he wants to see big changes in taxation and has set up a tax and investment
commission to look at how a fair division of the nation’s wealth might be achieved. It’s not about “taxation for taxation’s sake”, he insists, but about “how and where do we raise the resources to meet the levels of public investment we need and are going to need in the future”.
“As socialists and people who believe in equality and redistribution I don’t think we can responsibly ignore the fact that whilst income inequality is growing, wealth inequality is growing at a much larger rate,” Leonard says. “It makes sense to explore the possibility of a wealth tax, either as windfall tax or as a recurring form of taxation.”
There’s some way to go, he admits, in making that case but he’s heartened by the way Labour’s messages are now being received. “One of the things I thought was striking about the general election was that once again the Labour party was talking about public ownership, the Labour party was once again clearly making itself an anti-austerity party and we were also talking of a redistribution not only of wealth but of power,” he says. Leonard believes making the case for Labour values is crucial – and here is where Tawney and his famous 1931 essay The Choice before Labour come in. “The essence of what he was saying is the Labour party can have the best organisation in the world, it can have the best programme in the world but it needs a sense of creed, it needs to stand for something, it needs to have an inherent belief propelling it forward – those values about equality, those values about the different kind of society we want to build, this idea that there are big imbalances of power between men and women and between the people that own the wealth and the people that create the wealth.”
Labour has lost support, he believes, when it has been unclear about its values. “What we need to try to do is to develop, a sense of who it is we are what it is we believe in and what it is we stand for.”
He doesn’t underestimate the importance either of bringing the party together as the party tries to get these values across to the voters. “My background is as a party activist, someone who’s been an election agent in more elections than I care to remember, somebody who worked in the trade union movement for 20-odd years,” he says. “I think I’m in a position to try to knit [people] together. On a weekend I’ll speak at the Glasgow Art Club to the Fabian Society on a Saturday and at the STUC to a Morning Star conference on the Sunday. That exchange of ideas in the Labour party and the broader labour movement is absolutely essential.”
The stakes are high both for Scotland and the UK.
“The simple truth is that unless Labour wins again in Scotland we’ll not win again at a UK level. This is absolutely a critical battleground for us to get things right. People are on our shoulders in the Scottish Labour party to get this right. I’ll do my best as leader. I’ll be looking to the broader party and wider movement to try and build a campaign to project those kind of changes that I think we need to see.”