A job made harder than it needed to be
Labour Hame editor Duncan Hothersall says one job of Scottish Labour leader is to unite the membership, and that task has been made harder by some vocal participants in this debate.
Ballot papers for the Scottish Labour leadership election will begin to arrive today, after a lengthy debate among party members. Despite what I believe were the good intentions of both candidates, the debate has too often descended into rancour, and too much of it has been played out in anonymous briefings given to newspapers whose interests do not lie in Labour’s success.
I have been reminded more than once during this campaign of the unpleasantness and personal animosity which bloomed during the independence referendum in 2014. Differences of opinion, deeply held, too often were allowed to develop into personal attacks. Untruths were told and angrily promoted. What should have been a civil debate was conducted as if it were a fight to the death.
As with the independence referendum, the problems in this debate have largely stemmed from enthusiastic supporters given free rein, not from official communications from the campaigns. As with the independence referendum, there seems to be a strong push now to claim that both sides have behaved as badly as each other. As with the independence referendum, that is simply not true.
Some of the loudest voices on the Corbynite left of the party see this election not as a choice of who can best unite and lead a broad-based coalition to electoral success, but how Scottish Labour can be captured for the left alone, and how moderate voices can be drowned out. For them this is not about Richard Leonard, a decent man who they underestimate if they consider him usable as a puppet. They have seized on this vote as an opportunity to exclude those who disagree, and to cement control over the party machine for their factional interest.
Worse, they have been prepared to lie with impunity in order to achieve this aim. The Campaign for Socialism (CfS), which merged its membership with Jon Lansman’s Momentum last year, has adopted the misleading claims used against Labour by the SNP in 2015 and 2016 to try to pretend Anas Sarwar voted for cuts to benefits – cuts he actually vocally opposed. Those who worked hard to counter our opposition’s lies in 2015 and 2016 will, not unreasonably, be angry to see them being exhumed by influential voices within our movement.
And the tone, as well as the content, of these attacks has been very troubling. From anonymous briefings to social media postings this hard core left faction has taken a scorched earth approach which can only be damaging to Labour’s long-term prospects whoever is chosen as our new leader. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that our electoral prospects are not high on their agenda. Their prize is control of the party and the imposition of ideological purity. The ability to actually change people’s lives for the better comes a clear second.
I would have liked to have seen Richard condemn these factional campaigners for their approach on his behalf. That he has chosen not to do so is troubling. He is a better man than his supporters make him seem, and I wish he had found a way to demonstrate this.
Nor should the Scottish Executive Committee, the governing body of the party, escape criticism for how this campaign has turned out. The decision to once again set a freeze date after the resignation of the previous leader and offer brand new members and affiliates a vote has predictably put local party volunteers under enormous pressure to vet new members, and created the opportunity for unscrupulous opponents of Labour to influence who leads our party. It should not have happened this time, and it must never happen again.
Some folk say leadership elections should focus on policy in order to both set the direction for the party and show the wider electorate our breadth of thinking. Despite there having been some good policy proposals made during this campaign, I take a different view. The role of the leader is to unite the membership, embody the party to the electorate, and put our message across effectively and coherently. The election of a leader should focus on those abilities. Policy is the domain of the Scottish Policy Forum and annual conference.
And the critical job of uniting the membership has been made much, much harder by the way CfS and the factional left have conducted themselves during the course of this leadership campaign. Both Anas Sarwar and Richard Leonard are capable of rising to the challenge of rebuilding unity, and whoever wins will have my support in their efforts to do so. But Richard will be greatly hampered in such an effort if he continues to be surrounded by the people who have worked hard so far to promote factionalism instead.
For me only one candidate has convincingly reached out across internal divisions and promoted a unifying ethos for Scottish Labour during this campaign. That he has continued to do so under intense provocation to do otherwise is a testament, in my view, to his strength of character. Whoever wins this democratic contest will have my support to try to heal the divisions it has laid bare; but Anas Sarwar has my vote.