THE first time I met Richard Leonard, it didn’t go well. It was our first or second day as newbies in the Scottish Parliament and I found myself beside him in the coffee queue.
Labour had taken a bit of a drubbing at the polls in 2016, so the majority of those newly elected alongside us were Tory MSPs. I think that reality excuses my opening question to Mr Leonard. I thought it perfectly reasonable to ask what prompted him to join the Conservative Party. He didn’t seem to find that reasonable at all.
The only other occasion I’ve spent any meaningful time in his company he thrashed me in a pancake-making competition. We were promoting something to do with renewable energy (well, obviously) but that conversation was laden with fewer expletives than the first and rather more quotes from the likes of Engels and Kropotkin.
Despite those two encounters, he is still one of the MSPs who entered Holyrood alongside me that I know least about. That says a lot, considering he leads what was the most powerful political force in Scottish politics for the best part of 100 years.
The man who would be First Minister is unquestionably a deep thinker and someone passionately committed to his trade-union and his Labour values, but he has been largely invisible in Scottish politics since his election as leader three years ago.
Winston Churchill once said of his Labour rival Clement Atlee, that “an empty car pulled up and Clem got out of it”. And watching Richard go through the motions at First Minister’s Questions every week, I can sort of see what he was getting at.
I watched the failed coup that was the withdrawn ‘no-confidence’ motion he faced down over the weekend, but I didn’t revel in any part of it. Some of my greatest, life-long friends are staunch members of the Labour Party and I ache to see their distress.
While I had no dog in the fight that took place at that meeting, I can’t help but think that nothing which happened there was good for democracy in Scotland.
Watching on Saturday, I’d hoped for his sake that Richard would have called it time. He’s a decent man, with honest values but he can’t hope to be taken seriously going forward. He’ll be leading a party into the most important election in the history of devolution with all guns drawn and pointing inwards.
Labour are still a very different animal from the Liberal Democrats, but we share some common aims. We desperately want to end the stranglehold of the SNP vs Tory knockabout that’s gripped our country since the independence referendum; we both want to make a progressive case for the future of the United Kingdom and we can both see that a federalised Britain, in which our leaders and institutions work together instead of trading insults, could represent the key to Scotland’s constitutional padlock.
But Labour need to get their act together if we are to work alongside them towards any of those aims. Otherwise, it is all too straightforward for the SNP and Conservatives to bang the drums for their own supporters and fuel constitutional divisions, at times seemingly oblivious to the global pandemic that is still a terrible threat to lives and livelihoods.
The survival of the UK is not inevitable, recent polls have demonstrated that in worrying clarity.
If we are to stop the drift towards independence then the coalition we build to fight for it must be a plural one. No one party has the strength to carry enough of the nation with us, but between us we just might.
My team can’t do all the heavy lifting on the progressive side of the argument, so we need the red corner to sort itself out.
Sadly, it’s now clear that starts with the appointment of a leader whose name is not Richard Leonard.
Alex Cole-Hamilton is the Lib Dem MSP for Edinburgh Western
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