JOHN BEATTIE takes a look at the leadership contest north of the border and finds only one candidate shares his party’s values
IT’S the penultimate week of what has felt like a very long Scottish Labour leadership contest.
Nominations for leadership opened on September 11 and the result will be announced on November 18. Voting closes at midday the day before.
Leadership contenders Richard Leonard and Anas Sarwar seek to lead Scottish Labour out of the darkest period in its history.
It is no secret that Scottish Labour sits in third place in Scotland behind the Tories and the SNP in terms of Holyrood and Westminster seats.
Whoever wins the leadership contest has a mountain to climb. So which candidate has the best chance of reaching the top of that mountain?
The key to this is their credibility in the eyes of the Scottish electorate and how much baggage each of the candidates is carrying.
Richard Leonard is pretty much a “what you see is what you get” kind of candidate. Leonard was elected as an MSP for the first time in May 2016. Since then he has performed the role of shadow economy minister for Scottish Labour at Holyrood.
Before his election to Holyrood, he worked for the GMB union. In this role he fought daily for better workers’ pay, rights and conditions.
He is a candidate who is very well read on industrial strategy and economics. He has contributed insightful and well-researched chapters on Scotland’s economy to the Red Paper Collective’s Class, Nation and Socialism: The Red Paper on Scotland 2014.
Ultimately, what Leonard is carrying in his baggage are useful tools and a wealth of experience that are going to be of vital use for the journey ahead.
Anas Sarwar, on the other hand, has a “baggage problem.” And the problem is there is far too much of it.
Like Leonard, Sarwar was first elected to the Scottish Parliament in 2016 after he became number one on the Glasgow List (we have a different voting system in Scotland). However, this isn’t where most of the Sarwar baggage is from. That comes from his time before he was an MSP.
In 2010 Sarwar inherited his father’s Westminster seat and was elected to represent the Glasgow Central constituency. After Scottish Labour’s 2011 Holyrood electoral trouncing by the SNP, Sarwar became the Scottish Labour deputy leader to Johann Lamont between 2011 and 2014.
One of the biggest pieces of baggage Sarwar has is from his support of the Tory welfare cap in 2014. Ed Miliband’s leadership had enforced a whip to ensure Labour MPs voted in favour of the cap.
However, not all of them did, notably Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott, among others, refused to vote for the cap.
Sarwar voted in favour of it. In hindsight he probably regrets doing so, but what it shows is he is a candidate with the potential to support policies that negatively impact the poorest people in society.
It also emerged that during his time in Westminster Sarwar held shares in a company that was registered in an offshore tax haven.
Sarwar’s campaign team were quick to state that he didn’t pay for the shares nor did he make any money from them. That seems rather peculiar. If that is the case, what was the point of having them in the first place?
The fact that he was involved with such a company registered in a tax haven sits uneasy in the minds of many Labour Party supporters.
Labour is a political party that tries to advance arguments in favour of progressive taxation and the task of doing that becomes all the more difficult if the person leading your party once held shares in a tax haven.
It leaves Sarwar with no credibility on the issue and gives opposing parties a powerful weapon to use against Scottish Labour should he become leader.
The Sarwar family business, United Wholesale (Scotland) Ltd, didn’t pay a real living wage, something the labour movement has been championing for some time.
It also didn’t recognise trade unions. Many would dismiss this as being trivial but it cannot be dismissed when the theme of your campaign is “Labour Values.”
He was also part of the Scottish Labour group that called for Jeremy Corbyn to resign — while Richard Leonard remained consistent in his support for Corbyn. Since then, Sarwar has become an overnight Corbynista.
The biggest piece of baggage, I would argue, is from the Scottish independence campaign. Sarwar — for some strange reason — in a live TV debate with Leonard, denied being part of the toxic Better Together campaign that saw Scottish Labour team up with the Tories.
This is untrue and to try and mislead people about that in the age of social media is breathtakingly naive.
In hindsight the partnership was a disastrous move for Scottish Labour, and one the party has paid for heavily since.
The problem Sarwar has is that he reminds people of why they stopped voting Labour. His leadership campaign shows he has learned nothing in the years since.
In Scotland, Labour could have won more Westminster seats in June if the Scottish Labour leadership had focused more on the positive and well-received manifesto instead of continually reliving the independence debate.
Then leader Kezia Dugdale played right into the SNP’s hands by constantly focusing on the issue of independence instead of the policies contained within the excellent For The Many manifesto.
Sarwar’s campaign has set a similar tone. It is making the same mistake. There is no doubt whatsoever that Scottish Labour and Leonard support Scotland’s membership of the UK, but it is how this message is tailored to the electorate that is key.
Some of the former Labour strongholds like Glasgow and North Lanarkshire voted Yes to Scottish independence.
The vast majority of those who voted Yes aren’t hard-line nationalists; they simply wanted to escape the harshness of Tory austerity (like benefit caps and welfare caps) and saw voting Yes as the only way out.
Constantly ramming it home to these people that they were wrong to vote Yes instead of listening to the reasons why they voted Yes in the first place is a self-destructive tactic that will solidify Scottish Labour’s place as a third-rate party in Scotland.
The first part of the journey up the mountain is the relatively easy part. Both candidates have what it takes to reach base camp. It might take Sarwar a little longer because he keeps accumulating more baggage on the way there and his sherpas are already exhausted from the endless damage-limitation work they have to do on a daily basis just to get him to base camp.
The real challenge for the next Scottish Labour leader is the journey back to the peak of Scottish politics.
For so long, Scottish Labour has been trapped in the avalanche caused by the nationalists’ trail-blazing path to the summit.
We need to move on and move beyond the national question. We can’t make the same mistakes as before, mistakes that have left us as mere bystanders watching the SNP and Tories slug it out over Scottish independence while Scotland falls apart, child poverty increases and food banks are struggling to meet demand. If we take the path to the left of the SNP, there is no doubt we will be successful.
However, the path in question is a narrow one and we can only choose one person to take us up it.
Will it be the one with all the heavy baggage or the one whose only baggage contains all of the essential tools needed for the journey ahead?
This is why we have to ensure Leonard wins. He is the only candidate who will emerge from this leadership contest with his credibility intact.
Only he can lead us on the path to success and only he can appeal to voters Scottish Labour needs to win back.