Nominations closed last Sunday (17th September) for the post of Scottish Labour Party (SLP) leader, left vacant by the recent resignation of Kezia Dugdale. There will be two names on the ballot paper: Anas Sarwar and Richard Leonard.
Sarwar was a Westminster MP from 2010 to 2015, when he lost his seat in the SNP landslide. In 2011 he was elected Scottish Labour Party deputy leader but resigned from the post in late 2014. In the 2016 Holyrood elections he was elected as a Glasgow list MSP.
Sarwar certainly has money and an election machine at his disposal.
His father is a multi-millionaire, a former Westminster MP (who represented the same seat as his son, who directly succeeded him), and Governor of the Punjab until 2015. Sarwar has already hired campaign rooms and paid staff for his campaign.
His problem is his politics. A former vice-chairperson of the right-wing Progress faction in the Labour Party, he came out in support of Corbyn in 2015, campaigned very publicly for his resignation in 2016, and has now transformed himself into a born-again Corbynite.
Last year he was dismissing Corbyn’s chances of winning a general election as zero. This year, as a contender for the post of SLP leader, he wants to help “elect Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister”.
Sarwar presents himself as the “unity candidate”, capable of bringing together the different wings (pro-Corbyn and anti-Corbyn) of the Labour Party.
But this ignores his own role last year in helping to polarise the SLP in the leadership contest, and the fact that it is only the SLP right wing which has rallied behind his leadership bid and is attempting to mobilise support for it.
There is also an obvious incongruity between Sarwar standing to be the Scottish leader of a party committed to govern “for the many, not the few” and the fact that he himself is one of the “few” rather than the “many”.
He sends his son to a private school, at a cost of £10,000 a year. But less than 5% of children in Scotland attend private schools. Sarwar spends more on private-school fees than is the total income of most unemployed people.
Although never a member of the Campaign for Socialism, the left-wing contender is Richard Leonard, a former GMB full-timer who was elected to Holyrood as a list MSP in 2016, after having failed to win election as a constituency MSP in the 2011 elections.
In contrast to Sarwar, Leonard was one of the few MSPs who signed an ‘Open Letter’ supporting Corbyn in last year’s leadership contest.
Speaking at his campaign launch last Saturday, Leonard said that “real change” (his campaign slogan) would not be achieved through “nationalism or patriotism” but through “socialism and democracy”.
He committed himself to “radical policies for the many, not the few”, including rent controls, a workers’ right-to-buy, and an industrial strategy which “considered” public ownership of the railways, Royal Mail, and energy.
Sarwar is backed by a majority of Scottish Labour’s MSPs, MPs and MEPs. This was inevitable, given that change in the political composition of Scottish Labour’s parliamentarians lags way behind change in the political composition of the broader Party membership.
In terms of trade union nominations, the most that Sarwar will achieve is support from Community and USDAW, both of which always back the right-wing candidate (and no matter how right-wing) in SLP elections. All other unions will likely back Leonard.
Although SLP membership has grown and has shifted to the left over the past couple of years, it is primarily a matter of relative growth and relative political change – starting off from the base of the right-wing rump organisation which right-wing control of the SLP reduced it to prior to 2015.
Although Corbyn probably won a majority of votes from affiliated and registered supporters in Scotland in the 2016 leadership contest, and also a majority of CLP nominations, a small majority of the SLP individual membership backed Owen Smith.
The leadership contest is likely to be close. Campaigning for Leonard needs to be combined with the broader task of wresting control of CLPs from the right wing and transforming them into campaigning organisations rooted in local communities and workplaces.