Ian Swanson: It’s a jungle out there for new ‘branch office’ boss Leonard

New Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. Picture: John Devlin
New Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. Picture: John Devlin
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RICHARD Leonard may not need to worry about having to get up close to creepy crawlies or eat kangaroo body parts with Boris Johnson’s dad.

But while his predecessor faces the televised trials of life in the jungle, the new leader of the Scottish Labour Party has challenges of his own to confront.

Before heading off to the jungle to take part in I’m a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!, Kezia Dugdale shared some of her thoughts about the task ahead for the role which she relinquished in the summer.

She said the toughest task for the new leader would be to unite the party after a bitter and personal campaign.

The contest pitched Mr Leonard, a long-standing trade union official and man of the left, elected as an MSP just last year, against Anas Sarwar, an ex-MP and former deputy leader of Scottish Labour, seen as a moderate and also first elected to Holyrood last year.

The contest was marked by accusations from each side that the other had unfairly signed up lots of new ­members to vote for their man.

And Mr Sarwar came under fire as a millionaire who sent his children to private school and whose family firm did not recognise unions or pay the real living wage.

Many had predicted a close result, but in the end Mr Leonard won by a fairly comfortable 57 per cent to 43.

Significantly he won both among the affiliated supporters – mostly trade unionists – and also party members, strengthening his mandate.

But Ms Dugdale is right – the ­contest underlined divisions in the party and a majority of MSPs backed Mr Sarwar. It will be important for the new leader to build bridges and make sure there is no room for resentments to fester.

Ms Dugdale also warned that her successor would have to walk a ­tightrope between backing Jeremy Corbyn’s agenda and insisting on the party’s Scottish identity north of the border. This is perhaps the most ­crucial issue for the future of the party.

Mr Leonard said repeatedly during the contest that he was not a ­Corbynista – “I’m too long in the tooth for that”. There is no question that he backs the UK leader and his policies, but Mr Leonard has been active on the left since long before Mr Corbyn rose to lead the party. His views come from a well-established belief in socialism and not any form of personality politics. He has argued that the party in Scotland failed to realise the growing popularity of Mr Corbyn during the general election and could have won more seats if it had fully embraced the radical manifesto Labour was offering.

Mr Sarwar’s supporters claimed that, if Mr Leonard won, the risk was that the party north of the border would go back to being the “branch office”, described as such by former leader Johann Lamont when she quit after the independence referendum.

Mr Leonard will have to ensure that the Scottish party maintains a distinct identity – he has already pointed out that the UK party’s tax proposals did not go as far as the Scottish party’s.

But that does not mean Scottish Labour should seek to define itself against the UK leader or his programme. Ms Dugdale’s policies on tax and other issues were more radical than many acknowledged.

If Labour is to advance again in Scotland, it has to be a united ­programme which addresses Scottish issues in a bold way.