“To purge, or not to purge,” as Shakespeare would have written, had Hamlet been a professional politician who knew better than the working classes what was good for them. The answer, as all good politicians of the left know, is “purge”. Every time. If you have to choose between being in a competent government and purging dissenting thought then you’ve spent too long thinking about it, comrade.
It can’t be known what question the newly elected Scottish Labour Leader Richard Leonard has on his mind, but amongst the first proposed to him was “what do you make of what Kezia has just done?” Leonard’s predecessor as leader of the Labour Party in Scotland, Kezia Dugdale, has had a last-minute call-up to the jungle for “I’m a Celebrity…” By upstaging her new boss Richard Leonard on the day the party announced his win over Anas Sarwar MSP, Kezia has done something thought impossible: make Alex Salmond look dignified. Salmond’s foray into Kremlin-funded chat-show infamy looked like a new low for Scottish Politics. How wrong that view will be once Dugdale has a hearty evening meal of the, ahem, Australian cuisine which makes the show famous.
Richard Leonard, who beat his rival in an overly-long and little-noticed contest, is said to be on the Jeremy Corbyn wing of the party. He seems to have had a better education than Corbyn though, and worked in the union movement solidly, before becoming an MSP in 2016. It will be the ambition that Leonard’s solid Labour Party background will connect with voters who have switched to the SNP.
The new Labour leader in Scotland can be described in many ways: the fourth one in six years; sixteenth in seventeen years if you add in acting leaders; the second one this year. But can he be the first one since Jack McConnell to hold the office of First Minister?
Factionalism in political parties is a feature of broad-church thinking, where people of differing views can usually get behind a leader because broadly they all agree on the same things. For the Labour Party in Scotland, you add in years of political dominance as well as a splash of sectarianism and you have scandals like Monklands in the 1990s, where Labour councillors were accused prioritising capital projects in the town of Coatbridge at the expense of nearby Airdrie.
Labour was able to overcome these crises by a combination of iron discipline, great leadership from Monklands East, and national leader, John Smith, as well as success at the ballot box with their next leader Tony Blair. However, like their counterparts in North London, the lefties bided their time and waited. While they dreamed of a future Blairite purge, Labour led the Better Together campaign in the Scottish Independence Referendum. Perhaps unfairly, a narrative formed, fuelled by a slicker more-energised SNP, that Scottish Labour had been “in bed with the Tories”. What did happen was that Labour came out of the campaign exhausted and damaged politically with the slur of Tory-by-association.
So what can new leader Richard Leonard do? His party is fractured and exhausted. Many would be tempted to just knock some heads together, fire a few nobodies, take on an internal fight you can win. He certainly needs to do something about Kezia Dugdale in her flight to the jungle. Leonard, and his colleagues, should not find it acceptable for someone to say they’ll not be at work this month but still expect to be paid. It’s worth noting that Dugdale intends to donate to charity the parliamentary salary she earns while on the show. From the taxpayer to a no doubt worthy collection-box: I’m a former leader of the Scottish Labour Party, get my salary out of here.
What Richard Leonard could do is look at Ruth Davidson’s approach to the Tories in Scotland. Davidson has led her party to become the second party at Holyrood, and she’s had to fight them in London to do it. If Leonard is to return his party to sustained success he’ll have to do the same. Another former leader, Johan Lamont, famously said that Labour Party bosses in London saw the Scottish party as little more than a branch office. Though it remains to be seen what success another new leader can have, Leonard’s background in the union movement suggests it’s possible he can navigate through.
The electoral battle for Scottish Labour seems to be against the dominance of the SNP, who have been poaching their traditional support for the last ten years. But the real battle is against Ruth Davidson’s Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party. Davidson has set out her stall as firstly and mainly pro-Union. Leonard will have to decide, not on where his party stands on independence, but on how it stands against independence.
It won’t be easy for him to mark out clear ground from the Tories as a pro-union anti-SNP party. The worst possible thing would be for him to follow Corbyn’s lead and fight the battles of yesteryear. Nothing says 1987 like sticking it to Thatcher. Here’s an idea: have a look at what’s really affecting working people in Scotland, like zero-hours contracts and eternal temporary jobs, and really see if there is anything you can do to help. Leave the SNP to appeal to the out of work. Labour should take a novel approach and consider the people who actually watch television; not by appearing on it, but by asking them a few questions and listening.
Kezia Dugdale herself has a view on politicians who appear on “I’m a Celebrity…”. In a tweet from 2012, Dugdale said of Nadine Dorries entering the jungle: David Cameron has been desperate to ditch Nadine Dorries since her election – how daft of her to serve him up a reason on a plate. Her new leader, Richard Leonard, can reflect if it was daft of his predecessor to serve him a reason to purge her.