Beating a path to Bute House

You’ve said you’re too old to be a Corbynista, so how would you describe your political views in the context of the Labour Party?

‘It is an abiding and indisputable truth that a people which does not understand the past will never comprehend the present, nor mould the future’. So wrote Tom Johnston in his foreword to the 1946 edition of The History of the Working Classes in Scotland. Thus, my influences come from the Labour and socialist traditions going back to Keir Hardie, Harold Laski, the Red Clydesiders, RH Tawney, William Morris, Jennie Lee, the post-industrial utopians and the New Left. Personally, my early politics were forged on the anvil of the Thatcher years and the clash between state and society. It was a brutal time and an important, defining point in our country’s history.  

I have also been hugely influenced by Labour’s founding father, Keir Hardie. He was a committed egalitarian and for me Labour principles are founded on equality – of ensuring the economy works for all, that wealth and industrial and political power resides with the many rather than the few, and that women are treated equally across all sectors of society. Hardie also had a radical vision for how the country should be changed and it’s that radicalism which I believe Scottish Labour needs to adopt once again. 

Richard Leonard contributed a chapter to ‘What would Keir Hardie Say? Exploring his vision and relevance to 21st Century politics’ (Luath, 2015).
It is only by offering real change – and by working as a party across the UK to do this – that people will believe Labour can actually transform their lives.

The slogan of your campaign was ‘real change’. How can this be achieved in the context of the limited powers of the Scottish Parliament?

The Scottish Parliament has huge powers over housing; industrial policy; manufacturing; education, skills and science; local government; local government finance; and health, not just the NHS but public health. Moreover, there are huge powers over public procurement. So, in my view, I would suggest that political will is limited rather than the Scottish Parliament powers.

We know that the richest one per cent in Scotland today already own more personal wealth than the poorest 50 per cent put together and, going back to Hardie, that is obviously unequal, unjust and irresponsible. Of course, the ability to introduce new, income tax bands has only just been made possible, but already we’ve seen the Scottish Government baulk at going far enough and raising the money that’s needed to properly fund Scottish local authorities and the lifeline services they deliver. It has also failed to scrap the council tax and give councils the ability to raise money through tourist taxes or land value taxes.   The SNP has proved itself to be an exceptionally timid government. Scotland is a rich country and we should look for radical alternatives to tap into the wealth of the few who hold the most land and property. A windfall tax on the top one per cent could deliver a transformational boost to the budget which could be used to tackle the deep seated inequalities which exist.

Similarly, the SNP has refused to lift children out of poverty by raising child benefit by just £5 a week – a power the Parliament now has. It’s failed to close the attainment gap in our schools because it won’t fund education properly and as a result schools are being forced to use that attainment gap money to employ core, rather than additional, staff. The government also goes out of its way to avoid using the power it has over public contracts the government puts out to tender to ensure that companies which blacklist employees, which use zero hour contracts, which fail to pay the real living wage cannot receive public monies. The Scottish Parliament has many levers to drive the economy, to drive up employment standards for working people, to drive up people’s wages. Yet this current government chooses not to use them.

Richard Leonard supporting the anti-cuts demo outside the Scottish Parliament on Budget Day, 14 December 2017.

Do you support ‘devo max’ and if so what extra powers would that entail?

‘Devo Max’ is an idea which seems to change depending on who is talking about it. My view is firm that the radical change that Scotland needs, is the same radical change that is needed across the UK in terms of a shift in the distribution of power and in democracy. That is why Scottish Labour’s position is one of federalism – something I’ve argued for over many years – which allows disparate parts of the UK to find solutions to their own regional economic needs, while at the same time being part of a greater whole with all the benefits that entails. The Party’s constitutional convention, which I know my interim deputy and Shadow Scottish Secretary Lesley Laird, is keen to get going, will forge that radical change.

Can you foresee a situation where Labour, with yourself as its leader, cooperation with the SNP and Greens to form a progressive political consensus in the Scottish Parliament on issues such as progressive taxation, the return of Scotrail to public ownership, fracking, social security, procurement and promoting the living wage?

Scottish Labour is always willing to work with other political parties if we have a common aim. It’s worth remembering that the history of the Scottish Parliament has been one of partnership – from the constitutional convention which campaigned for the Parliament to the coalition governments, in the first instance between Labour and the Liberal Democrats until 2007. So when there is common ground we will work with those who, like us, want to change Scotland for the better.

As you know many of the Labour Party’s traditional supporters have deserted it for the SNP. How do you propose to win them back?

I believe that our message about ending poverty including poverty pay, promoting the Living Wage and secure work, tackling rogue private landlords and the need to embark on a massive social housing building programme will win people’s hearts and minds. We need economic transformative change, which will in turn change the balance of power and wealth. During my leadership campaign I said that my role as leader is to make Scottish Labour a campaigning movement for socialism once again, and to give people hope. This means taking more chances. Labour is in third place, and unless we are audacious now we will never win back the support of the people of Scotland.

We also need an industrial strategy for the 21st century, re-empowered and properly resourced local government and a renaissance of public and co-operative ownership with new and innovative public investment in public services. We need a radical redistributionist policy that taxes wealth as well as income more progressively. I believe all of these radical ideas can reach out and win back those voters that Labour has lost in Scotland. It is an approach which will build a bridge to young voters, and it will bring renewed belief to Labour voters who have stuck with us through thick and thin.

You’ve said that Scottish Labour needs to be like the ‘Yes’ movement. Can you explain what you mean?

The ‘Yes’ movement was very good at offering people an alternative vision of Scotland and a message of hope. To my mind that is what won voters round during the referendum, not independence per se. People felt excited and enthused by the energy around the movement. And, of course, asking people to make a positive choice and vote ‘Yes’ to something is far easier than asking them to vote ‘No’. A similar thing happened for Labour during the 2017 General Election campaign. Too many people feel powerless because of the lack of equality in our political and economic systems and Jeremy Corbyn’s message was a clear alternative to that. It gave people hope. So Scottish Labour needs to be clear in its message of radical change to engender that same reaction in people; that things can be different, that they can get a good education, they can get a decent job with decent pay, they can afford a house and to feed their families. Thus, we change the way our economy works and in whose interests. And Scottish Labour needs to be a real grassroots movement again, not just focused on what’s happening at Holyrood. We need to get people involved, to be a campaigning movement, to get our message out across Scotland.

After the announcement of your election victory on Saturday 18 November in Glasgow, you travelled through to Fife to support the workers in occupation at BiFab. Can you tell us what part the extra-parliamentary struggle will play for Scottish Labour under your leadership?  

Labour at its best has always been a movement for social change, not just a political party. We need to get back to grassroots campaigning, being seen in Scotland’s communities and taking our message out beyond Holyrood. Engaging with our members, working with unions in workplaces and communities across Scotland and the co-operative movement, is vital to re-energising Scottish Labour and the electorate alike. That’s why it was important for me to have someone in my Shadow Cabinet who would take a lead on campaigning, and ensuring the communication between the Party

Richard Leonard supporting the BiFab demonstration in Edinburgh, 15 November 2017.
and the parliamentarians is strengthened further. Neil Findlay will be responsible for unearthing the issues that our members and affiliates believe we should be campaigning on and bringing them to Holyrood, but also ensuring our campaigning agenda outside Parliament.

Notwithstanding some differences, the similarities between yourself and Jeremy Corbyn are many and varied. One of these is that the parliamentary Labour groups in Holyrood and Westminster are not wholly on board with a return to what can be described as ‘old Labour’ traditional values like importance of public ownership, the redistribution of wealth and so on. How do you intend to deal with this political challenge?

I believe that listening to people and giving them the opportunity to express their views is part of the process of working as a team. It’s an opportunity to get a broad section of opinion and find common ground. The leadership election has showed us that a re-invigoration of our politics is needed we need a vision of a better future, a vision of hope again. In the last few years Scottish Labour has led the way with what some would describe as ‘old Labour’ values, such as seeking to extend public ownership, campaign to end austerity, redistribute wealth and power, and these are all policies which the Scottish Labour team has fully supported.

Can you say where your twelve policy reviews fit into this?

These reviews are about making our policies relevant, distinctive and aligned with our Labour values. Our values must always underpin our purpose including policy priorities and electoral goals. Our goal of ensuring that our policies are for the many and not the few is central to our mission. Having a clear sense of purpose similar to Corbyn’s plan motivates activists and wins back voters.

In the leadership election, you stated that your leadership would see no concessions to nationalism and the constitutional issue in Scotland was little mentioned. What do you think will happen to the independence movement?

I make no apology for saying that the only coalition I want to see is the one between the Labour Party and the union movement. There will be no ground ceded to nationalism at the expense of progressive socialism under my leadership. No coalition, pacts, or parliamentary deals with the SNP. And no second independence referendum. The democratic will of the people of Scotland was to remain part of the UK. The referendum is now more than three years behind us and we all need to move on and look at the radical change that can be accomplished as part of the UK. There will always be people who will believe that independence is the answer but nationalism is not a liberating ideology. Rather, it is an inhibiting one. While the creation of a separate Scottish state is -perfectly feasible – it would defeat rather than advance the higher cause of economic democracy that we so badly need to strive for. Nationalism is not a short cut to socialism.

Is Brexit an opportunity or threat in your perspective, and how will it fit into the peculiarities of politics in Scotland as well as international trends like the austerity, neo-liberalism and reactionary populism?

I was a Remain voter. I do believe Britain should retain access to the single market. However, I am clear that we need to be tough, uncompromising and principled on any Brexit deal. The Tories handling of negotiations have been a diplomatic and negotiating disaster. And if it continues in this vein – and if this Tory Brexit deal is a detrimental deal for jobs and the Scottish economy, for our manufacturing base, for workers’ rights, equal rights and the protection of our environment; and if the rights of EU citizens living and working here are not safeguarded – then we should without question reject the Tory Brexit deal when it is brought before the UK Parliament.

The current challenge is not to stop Brexit but to shape it and under this heading there are now plenty of opportunities. The repatriation of powers returning from the EU to Edinburgh is also an opportunity. The Scottish Government has regularly justified a course of action by claiming that it was obliged to do so by Brussels and Brexit would end that. The use of these new opportunities can ensure the maximum progress for communities, for example from procurement.

Our thanks are to Lesley Brennan for organising the interview.

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