Richard Leonard: Who is the Scottish Labour leader?


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Mr Leonard became party leader the year after being elected to the Scottish Parliament

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard was due to face a vote of no confidence at the party’s ruling body, with several of his own MSPs openly calling for him to quit.

However the motion was withdrawn during the meeting on Saturday.

Despite leading the Scottish Labour for the past three years, Mr Leonard has struggled to raise his public profile – with polls suggesting many of his party’s own supporters struggle to recognise him.

But his allies insist the real Richard Leonard is very different from the figure who faces Nicola Sturgeon at first minister’s questions every week.

Richard Leonard was born as the son of a tailor in North Yorkshire in 1962.

In 1980 – the year after Margaret Thatcher became prime minister – his father lost his job with the company he had worked for since leaving school, with his parents and younger sister having to move to the south of England in search of work.

For Mr Leonard, it was further proof that working-class communities across the country were being torn apart by Mrs Thatcher and the Conservatives.

He was, by that stage, already studying politics and economics at Stirling University, where he was a friend, and later a flatmate, of future Scottish first minister Jack McConnell.

  • Scottish Labour leader to face no-confidence vote

Mr Leonard’s life had taken an unexpected twist seven years earlier when he won a fully-funded scholarship at the private Pocklington School, where he mixed with children from considerably wealthier backgrounds.

In an interview with The Scotsman newspaper, he described how attending the school had made him acutely aware of Britain’s class system, adding: “The bright kids I was at primary school with ended up working in factories and railways to a large extent.

“For me, the outcome was different.”

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Mr Leonard raised money for striking coal miners while a student at Stirling University

Mr Leonard became interested in the ideas and writing of left-wing Labour MP Tony Benn, which he admits marked him out as being “quite unusual” at Pocklington.

These ideas would remain a major influence on him throughout his life.

In 1984, he became Stirling University’s student president, and has described organising collections for coal miners who spent that year on strike.

After graduating, Mr Leonard became involved in local politics in the Stirling area and worked as an aide for Labour MEP Alex Falconer.

He then spent five years working for the Scottish Trades Union Congress – and a further 20 as an industrial organiser for the GMB union.

Mr Leonard was Anne McGuire’s election agent when she heavily defeated then-Scottish secretary Michael Forsyth in the 1987 general election.

He also served for a time as the party’s chairman, but it was not until the 2011 Scottish Parliament election that he attempted to enter frontline politics by standing as the Labour candidate in Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley.

Mr Leonard finished second to the SNP in that contest – but was elected to Holyrood five years later as a list MSP for the Central Scotland region.

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Kezia Dugdale announced that she was heading to the I’m a Celebrity jungle on the day Mr Leonard was named as her successor

He was almost immediately appointed as the party’s economy spokesman by Kezia Dugdale, who Mr Leonard was to replace as leader in acrimonious circumstances just over a year later.

Ms Dugdale announced her resignation in August 2017, saying it was time to “pass the baton” to someone else.

She had been a vocal critic of then-UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, leading to accusations from some of her supporters that she had been the victim of a left-wing plot to undermine her authority.

When Mr Leonard announced he was standing for the leadership, few outside the Holyrood bubble knew much – or anything – about him, although he was widely liked and respected within the Labour movement.

The centrist Anas Sarwar was initially seen as the favourite, with the contest – which saw Mr Leonard win the backing of all of the major trade unions – being marred by personal attacks, accusations of plots and claims of underhand voting tactics.

Mr Leonard ultimately emerged as the clear victor, winning a 56.7% share of the votes to Mr Sarwar’s 43.3%.

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Anas Sarwar congratulated his Mr Leonard after his victory – but the contest between them had been acrimonious

In doing so, he became the first Scottish Labour leader to come from the left of the party – and the first former trade union official to lead it.

The result was largely overshadowed by Ms Dugdale announcing on the same day that she would be appearing as a contestant on the ITV reality show I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!

Mr Leonard had received celebrity endorsement during the leadership contest from comic book writer Mark Miller, who described him as “the most exciting thing to happen up here in decades”.

But from the start, there were concerns from some within the party about his leadership style.

They said he came across as stilted and uncharismatic, with critics saying he was more suited to trade union committee meetings than modern politics.

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Mr Leonard was backed for the leadership by Kick-Ass creator Mark Miller

He took some persuading to eventually sign up for a Twitter account, for example, and has struggled to master the platform ever since.

And his close association with Mr Corbyn did little to rally many of the party’s more centrist MSPs behind him – with a reshuffle that saw some of them losing their front-bench roles in October 2018 doing little to improve their mood.

Mr Leonard did attempt to distance himself somewhat from his UK counterpart, insisting that he was his own man and a “little long in the tooth to be a Corbynista”.

But he introduced policies that were much more left-wing than his predecessors, including plans to nationalise the railways and greatly increase taxes for wealthier Scots.

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Mr Leonard was a close ally of Jeremy Corbyn – but insisted he had his own distinctive approach

Any hope that this shift would lead to an immediate uptick in the dismal fortunes of the party that once dominated Scottish political life largely evaporated when it finished fifth in last year’s European Parliament election.

This was followed soon after by Scottish Labour losing all but one of its MPs in December’s general election – with polls currently suggesting that its fortunes are unlikely to improve any in next year’s Holyrood election.

The discontent from some within the party, who see Mr Leonard as an outdated relic of Mr Corbyn’s time in office, erupted into open revolt earlier this month when four MSPs openly called on him to resign.

Mr Leonard, who is married with a son and stepdaughter, insisted he had no intention of doing so, and accused his opponents of sabotaging his efforts to improve the party’s fortunes.

His future looked likely to be decided by the vote at the party’s Scottish Executive Committee – a third of whose members had signed a motion of no confidence.

However that was withdrawn during a meeting of the governing body. Mr Leonard called for an end to “internal plotting” and called for unity in the party.



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