Richard Leonard has said he does not believe there is anyone in Scottish Labour who would make a better leader of the party than him.
As he faces a storm of criticism of his leadership, the Scottish Labour leader said he would resign if he thought someone else could do his job more effectively.
Mr Leonard acknowledged that there had been attacks on his leadership but argued that they had raised his profile, an outcome he hoped to exploit to take the fight to the SNP.
If I thought for a minute there was anybody better placed than me to lead the Scottish Labour Party I would consider my position. But I do not think that there is.”
His defiant attitude came despite the recent internal rebellion that saw four of his MSPs urge him to quit – a call that was supported by senior Labour figures like the former Defence Secretary Lord Robertson and former Scottish Secretary Baroness Liddell.
But a no confidence motion that was tabled for a last weekend’s meeting of Labour’s Scottish Executive Committee (SEC) was withdrawn at the last minute.
Mr Leonard claimed the motion’s withdrawal when the party’s governing body met on Saturday amounted to a “watershed” moment, which, he claimed, would enable Scottish Labour to move on with him in charge.
His critics have argued that Mr Leonard has failed to make enough of an impression with the voters despite being in the job for almost three years.
Last month a YouGov poll suggested Scottish Labour would finish third in next year’s Scottish elections with support for the party on just 14% compared with the SNP’s 57%.
The same poll found Mr Leonard had failed to make an impact on the public with 53% saying they did not know how well or badly he was performing.
— Richard Leonard (@LabourRichard) September 12, 2020
In an interview with the Press and Journal, Mr Leonard was asked about his failure to cut through to the public and the prospect of Labour losing more Holyrood seats.
“If I thought there was anybody better to lead the Labour Party I would step aside,” Mr Leonard said. “If I thought for a minute there was anybody better placed than me to lead the Scottish Labour Party I would consider my position. But I do not think that there is.”
When Mr Leonard faced calls to quit earlier this month, there was speculation that potential candidates to take over could include Anas Sarwar, the Glasgow MSP, and Jenny Marra, the Dundonian North East MSP who was one of those suggesting he should resign.
Among others mentioned were James Kelly, Scottish Labour’s former justice spokesman who quit Mr Leonard’s front bench in protest at his leadership and the Lothians MSP Daniel Johnson, who also called on him to quit.
The irony is that over the course of last few weeks my visibility has risen considerably, because of the debate we have had about my leadership inside the Scottish Labour Party.”
Mr Leonard claimed the party’s membership agreed with his view that he was the best man for the job. And after facing attacks for failing to connect with voters, Mr Leonard argued that the headlines generated by the criticism of his leadership had boosted his profile.
“The irony is that over the course of last few weeks my visibility has risen considerably, because of the debate we have had about my leadership inside the Scottish Labour Party,” Mr Leonard said.
“I now want to build on that and make sure that I am projecting the positive Labour case, the positive Labour alternative and I want to use that platform to hold the SNP Government to account – to be an effective opposition. Because there will be a time in the not too distant future of reckoning for the SNP and how they handled the pandemic.”
Mr Leonard said he would reach out to his internal critics, who have been characterised as being party moderates rather than on the left where the leader has derived much of his support.
“Over the course of the next few days I will be speaking to those people who have been openly critical of me because in the end we know that people do not vote for parties that are divided,” Mr Leonard said.
“We need to try to look at how we can work together and how we can show we are campaigning for a shared goal of maximising every Labour vote and trying to win more seats in the Scottish Parliament because that in the end is what we need to do – not for our own benefit but for the benefit of all the people to be a strong Labour voice inside the Scottish Parliament.”
Mr Leonard said he did not think the party was split when asked if he would “call out” his supporters who had accused his critics of treachery.
“I will speak to people across the party including members of the Scottish Parliament in the Labour group in Holyrood, who expressed strong views on either side of the debate,” Mr Leonard said in response to the question.
“But to those people and to all of us, I’m saying let’s put that behind us. Let’s move on. I’m leading the Scottish Labour Party into the May 2021 Scottish parliament election,” Mr Leonard said.
Leonard’s frustration over the case of the Aberdeen Nine
But on the issue of the nine Labour councillors in Aberdeen who have been suspended from the party for three years, Mr Leonard said he was unable to influence the internal process which is supposed to be dealing with matter.
Mr Leonard “refuted completely” any suggestion that the lingering problem was a symptom of weak leadership. He expressed “immense frustration” at the length of time it was taking, but said the matter was one for Labour’s National Constitutional Committee and it would be wrong to interfere in what he described as a “quasi judicial” process.
Looking ahead, Mr Leonard said he intended to get out and about in the north east to discuss with businesses how to protect oil jobs through transition to non-carbon industries.
He also pledged to tackle the Scottish Government on its handling of the Covid pandemic, describing the decision to discharge people from hospital into care homes without coronavirus tests – and in some cases having tested positive – as a “huge scandal”.
“There needs to be accountability and reckoning for that,” Mr Leonard said.