Voting has begun in the ninth ballot to elect a Scottish Labour Party leader since devolution in 1999 – and/or the sixth in a decade. The post is destined to be a permanent poisoned chalice, it would appear, yet both the 2017 candidates, Richard Leonard and Anwas Sarwar, insist they are offering a change of…leadership.
Leadership – if I hear either candidate utter “I believe I am best placed to lead ………..” again, I think I will scream. This is usually followed by a reference to some key policy, but never (in my experience) comes with an example of how they’ve led a collective initiative to a successful conclusion. We’ve allowed the Holyrood bubble to define the job and person specs, with a built-in self-destruct by date.
We do, of course, need a leader who can take on the SNP, expose its false left prospectus and record in office and take back former Labour voters and supporters tempted by its apparent energy and all-things-to-all people offer. But, above all, we need a leader to build a Holyrood leadership team from amongst our MSPs to raise us above our third party status; a leader who can work with our councillors, all of whom are now operating under No Overall Control, when Holyrood- and Westminster-imposed austerity is biting harder than ever and there’s a need to defend services and win the arguments with the voters for redistribution of economic power and increased taxes, with all the tangible benefits that follow; a leader who can work with the staff, the Scottish Executive, our affiliates and members to a common plan around policy-making and factoring it into our community campaigning. And a leader who can complement Jeremy Corbyn’s work with a distinctive Scottish voice.
Organisational health – this seems to be low or non-existent on both candidates’ agendas, as if they’ve fallen into the trap of believing the quick fix of the cult of the leader who will magic away all our problems. Labour, given its raison d’ être , needs strong local organisation to re-establish its roots in the community and to give us a critical campaigning edge at election time, particularly in marginal seats. These days political leaders must come up with policy initiatives, ideally in parallel with internal party processes which engage and empower party members for community dialogue. Placing too many expectations on the leader alone, rather than sharing responsibilities with other elected representatives and the party generally, is unsustainable. What’s more, it’s unhealthy and undemocratic. What have the candidates got to say about this?
The next general election – the candidates are seeking to portray themselves as future First Ministers, yet we could have another UK-wide poll before the next Holyrood elections in 2021 and this clearly has implications for the new Scottish leader’s prospects of success. For decades, some of us have been arguing for the Scottish Party to have more say over its own affairs. We’ve only recently begun to mirror political/administrative devolution to Holyrood with devolution within the party.
Having secured greater autonomy, the Scottish Party now finds itself behind its comrades in England & Wales (reportedly their selections are to be completed by Christmas) in selecting candidates for marginal seats, presumably because we can’t run a leadership contest and a series of selections at the same time. Why not? Four months-plus after the electorate delivered Theresa May a weak and unstable hung parliament, CLPs and former PPCs need to be freed from their current state of limbo, with members (not the Scottish Executive) allowed to select our candidates. Then they can start campaigning more openly. Unless of course, persons unknown are playing a long game, intent on allowing the SEC to select candidates for a second time within a year – quite an irony if that were to happen under a Leonard/Corbyn left leadership. The candidates could issue a joint statement tomorrow urging the Scottish Party to get on with it. What have they got to say about this?
So I’m more concerned about having a leader with leadership skills, who’s a team builder and good at delegating and understands the value of building from the bottom up for the long term, than I am about whether he can be pigeon-holed as the Corbyn of Momentum or the Corbyn of McCluskey. Then we can continue the necessary rebuilding started under Kezia Dugdale.
If the limit of our collective ambition is to elect a media-friendly performer (like some kind of reliable weather forecaster) who can deliver a few hits in Holyrood to rally the troops, we’re underestimating the scale of Labour’s problem. And running the risk of getting giddy on the political equivalent of the worst football managerial merry-go-round. As ex-player, wannabe manager Liam Rosenior recently wrote: “..it’s about developing the understanding of what makes your players (employees) tick, managing in a fickle, high-stress, results-driven business, how to maximise potential in a team environment and the art of teaching itself – all skills needed for management in every industry, not just football.” And: “Everyone is an expert now and has an opinion of their club’s best team and formation.” Not me: I just want to work together with the best.