The SKWAWKBOX was the first outlet last week to let its readers know that the contest for the Labour leadership was going to be a straight fight between former Progress vice-Chair Anas Sarwar and MSP Richard Leonard.
Leonard, a Yorkshireman who settled in Scotland after attending university there, is a relatively unknown quantity to many, especially south of the border, so this blog was delighted to have the opportunity to interview well-known Scottish left-wing MSP Neil Findlay about him:
Neil, many thanks for making time for us. Tell us about Richard Leonard.
Richard may not be famous to people outside the party yet, but he’s very well known within Scottish Labour. He studied here, worked for the Scottish TUC and then for Alec Falconer when he was an MEP.
Alec was well-known, a former dockyard worker and a huge character. Between them, they ran every left organisation and campaign for years and they were formidable – ‘a pair and a half’. They both used to share an office with Gordon Brown – they always got along well but from time to time there were good-natured differences!
For the last 20 years Richard was a trade union official, latterly political officer with GMB Scotland [union]. He’s intelligent, thoughtful and consistent in his politics. He’s never aligned himself publicly with any group or faction in Scotland but he’s always been supportive and worked closely with the left.
He’s also savvy – he didn’t get involved in the Better Together campaign, recognising what a disaster that would be for Labour in Scotland and he was proved absolutely right.
He’s a thinker. He’s written extensively about public and employee ownership and recently developed Scottish Labour’s industrial strategy; he’s a real Labour historian and founding member of the Keir Hardie Society. But he’s got real-world, practical intelligence – as a union man he’s negotiated with angry employers and knows how to handle people.
And he’s a Corbyn supporter?
Look, Richard is his own man – but he has the courage of his convictions. He signed a letter with me, Alex Rowley and others last year supporting Corbyn’s leadership when that was very unfashionable in Scotland. Whilst he hasn’t been a member of the CFS [Scottish ‘Campaign for Socialism’] he most certainly has never been a member of Progress either. I regard him as politically a very close friend.
During the leadership contest last year, more full Labour members backed Owen Smith than Jeremy. However, when you included registered supporters, Scottish Labour backed Corbyn. It’s a different electorate now even compared to last year and it’s been changing for a good while. When I stood against Jim Murphy, there were only about 15,000 members and the party was on its arse – but even then I got 35% when I was fighting the entire party Establishment and a well-resourced candidate. Sarah [Boyack] took 9% and Jim 55%.
That meant that even in 2014 45% of Scottish Labour members supported left candidates. Now we have around 22,000 members and 9,000 registered supporters.
So registered supporters will participate in this contest too – will they have to pay again to register?
Yes, they’ll have a vote – there’s a meeting on Saturday to agree the rules.
How do you see the contest unfolding?
I think it’s wide open and all to play for. We’re planning a campaign based on policy not personality and I hope that will be the same for both candidates. Neither Richard nor Anas are the kind of people to do personal attacks
The key issue is going to be resources. Anas’ campaign will be extremely well resourced with no shortage of funds. We’re not the same – but we have lots of offers of assistance and the grassroots are engaged. We want to galvanise their support and we’ve set up a website where people can register to help.
Now, I have to ask: what about accents? Is it going to matter that Richard’s originally from England?
I think the accent issue is hugely overplayed. There’ll be a flurry of interest and then it’s over. Richard’s one of us and he’s been here over thirty years since he was at uni, but we’re going to be concentrating on policy and vision. That’s what sets him apart.
Are you playing a formal role in his campaign?
No, I’ll be helping in whatever way is needed. The head of his campaign has just been appointed and there’ll be news about that shortly but people will be very pleased with the person who’s going to be running things for Richard. There’ll be an announcement shortly.
How would you like to round off the interview?
Policies and vision are the key. If people want a Scottish Labour leader who won’t just help restore the party’s fortunes in Scotland but will bring a genuine vision for the whole country, they’ll vote for Richard.
The SKWAWKBOX has already endorsed Richard Leonard for the Scottish Labour leadership, but our conversation with the highly-regarded Neil Findlay has only reinforced the conviction that, while his opponent Anas Sarwar represents a step back to the bad old days for Labour in Scotland, Leonard can be the leader who takes the party forward – and is good for the country.
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