After their years of navel-gazing politics provoked the populist spasms we are now contending with, the major parties have decided to inspect their belly buttons some more until the problem goes away.
At least, that appears to be the strategy. How else to explain the state of politics today? The Conservatives occasionally squeeze a bit of governing into their full-time job of braying accusations of betrayal at one another. The Scottish Tories, most of whom are deeply sceptical of Brexit, are tethered to this sideshow and every day their fears grow for what impact it could have on their support in Scotland.
The SNP conference, taking place in Glasgow, is putting on ‘debates’ about immigration and plastics pollution but the only topic any of them want to talk about is the SNP itself. What should be the party’s strategy on Brexit? What tactics will deliver independence soonest? Are they handling the Alex Salmond issue correctly?
This might seem an opportune time for Scottish Labour to make a fresh start with the voters by talking about the issues that matter to them. That is, after all, why members chose Richard Leonard as leader 11 months ago. He was a break from the leadership class defined by the acrimonious politics of 2014. Leonard, his partisans argued, could take Labour back to its roots.
In that sense, he has proved a sterling success. In its heyday, Scottish Labour was home to so many internecine grudges and bloody vendettas that John Smith House could have doubled as the Corleone family mansion.
Now, the factions and in-fighting are back. Don Leonardo isn’t the most impressive of godfathers — every time he gives a speech, he makes the voters an offer they can’t remember — but this mild-mannered union fixer has done more to undermine unity within Scottish Labour than their political opponents. Leonard should be required to register his leadership as an in-kind donation to the SNP.
His decision to sack health spokesman Anas Sarwar and economy chief Jackie Baillie is the crowning achievement in a reign of inscrutable victories.
Sarwar, Leonard’s rival in last year’s leadership election, learned he had been dumped on Twitter, while in the Holyrood chamber holding the SNP government to account over its mismanagement of the NHS. Baillie was told by phone not long before the press release went out. You can yell ‘up the workers’ on as many picket lines as you like, what matters is how you treat people when it counts.
The decision was all the more absurd in so far as Sarwar and Baillie were two of the strongest members of what Leonard optimistically refers to as his ‘shadow cabinet’. Much of Labour’s frontbench would struggle to get on the backbenches of any other party. They’re not shadow ministers; they’re completely in the dark.
Sarwar, on the other hand, was instrumental in pressuring Nicola Sturgeon to sack Shona Robison, her health secretary and best friend. Baillie had shown herself capable of making ministers squirm and balancing the party’s leftist instincts with the concerns of more moderate voters.
Both, however, were supporters of their colleague Kezia Dugdale, who had the funding for her legal defence in a defamation case brought by a pro-independence blogger abruptly withdrawn by Labour HQ in London. Leonard could not bring himself to criticise his bosses’ behaviour but Sarwar and Baillie spoke out, and now they are out on their ear. Richard Leonard’s Labour Party is a solidarity-free zone.
Sympathetic sources say Leonard is an essentially decent man surrounded by the wrong people. These same sources, and others, have been telling me the same thing for almost a year now. That’s how I saw him too but the facts before us cannot be denied.
He has been slow to show leadership, and often shown none at all, on anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim prejudice. He has taken an autonomous party and returned it to the status of a branch office. He has failed to stand with one of his own MSPs and he has dismissed another two in petty circumstances.
If the people around him are to blame, he is to blame for keeping them around. He may also come to regret this fit of spite. Sarwar can cause him many more problems from the backbenches and there are Uzbek militants I would rather make an enemy of than Jackie Baillie.
From now on, Leonard will lead on the economy — he has to lead on something, I suppose — and former deputy leader Alex Rowley has been welcomed back into the fold. Rowley discovered an octave 54 years ago and has stuck to it ever since. It would be unfair to call his speeches deathly dull but they are the primary execution method in Texas.
What of the voters in all this? In readers of this newspaper and electors across Middle Scotland, Leonard has no discernible interest. He has sacked the two leading moderates from his frontbench. Does he intend simply to stick a kilt on Corbynism?
Every Labour first minister has governed from the centre ground, and the Nationalists have done much the same. Of course, there have been forays to the left here and there, but always with the understanding that Scotland is governed best when it is governed in the interests of as many Scots as possible.
Public opinion has shifted leftwards on some issues of economic and social policy. That allows Labour to be bolder than before but it cannot be a cover for fist-thrusting protest politics. Scottish Labour’s primary purpose is still creating a fairer and more prosperous society across the board. That can be achieved — indeed, it is most successfully achieved — from the middle ground, and with a united party.
Richard Leonard has elbowed out the two Labour frontbenchers capable of talking to Middle Scotland, so he will have to learn to do it himself. If he would rather pick fights with his MSPs, voters will walk on past Labour like a problem family brawling in the street. The Tories and the SNP may be talking among themselves but at least they’re talking to each other.
The SNP is finally ready to back calls for a People’s Vote on the terms of Brexit. At least, they are according to their Westminster leader Ian Blackford.
There’s always a catch with the Nationalists and this one’s a doozy: If Scotland votes Remain again while England and Wales vote Leave, they want a second referendum on independence. If you are still following this — and I don’t blame you if you’ve run from the room weeping at the prospect of all these elections — the Nationalists are demanding a vote with a predetermined result. If it was Leave, a second independence referendum would be triggered. Heads, they win; tails, Scotland loses £13billion in public spending.
Nevertheless, the wording of Blackford’s remarks is noteworthy: ‘There has to be the right for Scotland to call a second referendum on independence’. Until now, the SNP has claimed to hold a mandate for Indyref 2. Blackford’s language implies a concession of the constitutional facts: The UK Parliament will decide if and when another vote takes place.
If you want to test your commitment to pluralism, take a saunter up Buchanan Street on a Saturday. This weekend, I was offered leaflets about Palestine, Israel, trade unions, Jesus, elderly rights, Jesus again — and then I saw it. A pro-veganism stall. In broad daylight. On a public street. In Glasgow. Free speech has its limits.
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Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org.