Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard says childhood 'scars' drive him to push party forward
Leonard opened up in an exclusive interview with the Daily Record's Annie Brown at his Paisley home and set out his plans for the future.by Annie Brown, https://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/authors/annie-brown/
Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard is in the obligatory politician’s casual, the open-neck check shirt and jeans, with a flash of red socks under blue slip-ons.
We meet in his garden in a pleasant working-class street in Paisley, with stunning views over Ralston golf course, where the loud trundle of a tractor on the green is forcing Leonard to shout.
And right now, Leonard is all about being heard, hitting the media circuit like a band with a new single out.
Rebel Labour MSPs are attempting a coup, threatening legal action if he doesn’t stand down as leader. And he saw off a potential vote of no confidence at the weekend at the party’s ruling National Executive Council.
But he is defiant, with Andy Whitaker, once spin doctor to ex-shadow chancellor John McDonnell, hovering by the garden fence, hoping he sticks to the script.
Leonard, 58, said: “I am resilient. I think people underestimated me and my resolve. If anything, this experience in the last few weeks has made me more determined.
“It would be the death knell for the Labour Party at the election, to be dragged through the courts in the middle of a pandemic while people are losing their jobs and the economy is crashing.”
In July, nearly 60 per cent of Scots said they don’t have an opinion on Leonard and his favourability rating is minus 28.
But he was supported by 23,000 party members who elected him leader. He also served his time before becoming an MSP, working with Mid Scotland and Fife MEP Alex Falconer, and had 20 years as a GMB union organiser.
His pillar of “ethical socialism” was shaped by the 70s power cuts and the three-day week, and the 80s of Thatcher and a dad uprooted by unemployment from their Yorkshire home town of Malton.
He said: “As we are on the precipice of mass unemployment, I am determined to lead the Labour Party in the battle for jobs and that does come from a scar that is inside me, because of what happened to my family.
“Now I live on a street where there are people who don’t know if they will have a job when furlough ends. That’s real stress. Those people are under real pressure, not me. It’s about perspective.”
Leonard says he has taken this time under siege to reflect on his weaknesses but like Jeremy Corbyn, who backed him, he blames the lack of a media platform.
He said: “The Scottish party is in third place behind the Tories. Getting platforms in the broadcast media has been difficult.”
On the prospect of the challenge against him continuing, he added: “Before me, we had five leaders in six years. The last thing we needed was another infernal round of internal leadership battles.”
UK Labour leader Keir Starmer has been “supportive”, says Leonard.
Rebel MSP Jenny Marra has said if the party does “not change course now, we risk catastrophe”, with a poll rating of only 14 per cent eight months out from the Holyrood election.
The team of detractors, Leonard believes, are putting personal ambition over the people they are there to serve.
One-to-one there is a sense of heart to Leonard, an innate decency and principle. But that’s dead currency unless voters buy into it.
This week marks his 40th year in Scotland, where he shares his home with his Glaswegian wife Karen and Copper, his Hungarian vizsla.
He admitted: “I need to get across to people the qualities I have got as a human being, the experience I have got that informs my political outlook and try to show that I am on their side.
“And people do want politicians who are on their side. I need to be better at conveying that message across to people.”
In a Scotland where the richest one per cent of the country hold the wealth of the poorest 50 per cent combined, his socialist ambitions should resonate.
But his hopes of nationalisation, land reform, the right to jobs, equal pay and fair conditions, low rents and a green economy, are not securing the X on the ballot paper.
Long before the SNP agreed, he championed the cause of a National Care Service, pushing the Government to pledge to strip profit from a system which, during Covid, failed our most vulnerable.
The dearth of PPE in care homes he describes as “lamentable”, the lack of testing “shocking”, as was the burden on care workers on a pittance, working 12-hour shifts as their isolated residents died around them. Had he been at the helm, would he have done it differently?
He said: “I would not have discriminated against and violated the human rights of residents of care homes. They were singled out. It was terrible. It was just all wrong.”
He concedes he needs to break free of the Holyrood bubble, to be a presence in Scotland’s communities where he believes the electoral fight lies.
He may not find many open doors.
Scots who want independence, and those who didn’t vote for Brexit, find his staunch Unionism and the party’s support of a “soft” exit from Europe unpalatable.
Many who think to the contrary have been drawn to the Tories, leaving Scotland without an effective opposition.
Top news stories today
- Sex beast on Tinder after prison release
- Tributes to Fife crash victim
- Dad of pub killer 'stabbed' in Edinburgh
- Scots gran 'denied dignity' in death
For now, Leonard maintains he has the mandate and determination to lead Labour in the 2021 election – but that could change overnight if the party’s fortunes don’t take a turn for the better.
And with the rebel MSPs looking like they are digging in for a long fight, Leonard will need all the grit of his native Yorkshire to survive.