Richard Leonard resigns as Scottish Labour leader

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The burdened and besieged party leader resigned yesterday after a rocky 2020 saw Labour fraught with more in-fighting

Richard Leonard resigned as the head of Scottish Labour yesterday in a move that comes with a distinct element of surprise within Scottish politics amongst some Labour MSPs. Despite years of speculation and political strife, many Labour MSPs did not see this coming.

Leonard’s resignation will have serious ramifications for the party at May’s election. Without a leader so close to the polls, Scottish Labour are in a weak position. Interim leader Jackie Baillie has little time to organise a leadership contest to replace him.

Leonard had dealt with much speculation about his leadership, both outwith and within the Scottish Labour Party, facing calls to resign and public displays of no confidence in him as leader. Four MPs resigned in September concerning Leonard’s position.

Speaking yesterday, Leonard stated that he believed the aforementioned speculation surrounding his leadership had become a “distraction”, and that he had “thought long and hard over this decision”, one which, for him, was primarily based on what was best for Scottish Labour.

Richard Leonard in recent days. Image Credit: BBC

Giving a statement, Leonard said: “I have thought long and hard over the Christmas period about what this crisis means, and the approach Scottish Labour takes to help tackle it.

“I have also come to the conclusion it is in the best interests of the party that I step aside as leader of Scottish Labour, with immediate effect.”

Leonard reiterated his belief that his resignation was best for the party, vocalising his continued belief that delivering a Labour government in May is essential, with accusations of mismanagement levelled at both the UK and Scottish Governments concerning the coronavirus pandemic.

“While I step down from the leadership today, the work goes on – and I will play my constructive part as an MSP in winning support for Labour’s vision of a better future in a democratic economy as a socialist society.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said Leonard should be “very proud” of his achievements as leader of the party in Scotland.

Sir Keir added: “I would like to thank Richard for his service to our party and his unwavering commitment to the values he believes in.

“Richard has led Scottish Labour through one of the most challenging and difficult periods in our country’s history, including a general election and the pandemic.”

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who faced Leonard in her weekly question session in the Scottish Parliament, tweeted that she had “always liked Richard Leonard” despite their political difference.

She added: “He is a decent guy and I wish him well for the future.”

Ruth Davidson, who quit as leader of the Scottish Tories in 2019 before returning to lead the party at Holyrood, said she had always found Leonard to be a “thoroughly decent man and a committed campaigner.”

Leonard’s lack of popularity within Scottish Labour can be partially attributed to his close associations with former UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, and subsequently a style of government perceived as radical by some of the population. One must only recall most of North England’s historic Labour seats turning blue in our last UK election.

Anas Sarwar, who previously lost to Leonard in the 2017 leadership battle is currently the front-runner for most political commentators; I’d agree with that assessment. Sarwar is known to the public and the party, and with time ticking until election day, an at least somewhat familiar face will be necessary to give Labour much needed presence with voters.

Having four different leaders (now looking for a 5th) since 2014 has weakened Scottish Labour’s credibility with the public as a party that is internally cohesive enough to run. Johan Lamont, Jim Murphy, Kezia Dugdale, and Richard Leonard have all held the office.

Many Corbynites have been ousted or quit from Labour in the wake of Starmer’s proposals and a direction shift to a more palatable centre left position: former trade unionist Leonard is the latest casualty.

Featured Image Credit: Michael Schofield – The Sun Glasgow

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