Scottish Labour leader says he'll lead the party into 2021 Holyrood election

There was a time, not too long ago, when whoever became leader of the Labour party in Scotland could become First Minister, or at least head of the main opposition party at Holyrood.

Those days have gone and though we do know public opinion can and does change over time, current polling suggests that those days won't be coming back any time soon.

So who then would want to be Labour leader in the Scottish parliament? Well, Richard Leonard wanted that role, and he has made it clear in an interview with me for Representing Border he wants to continue.

Not for him, he says, the fate of Jackson Carlaw, who was unceremoniously dispatched by his Tory party colleagues, and replaced by MP Douglas Ross, in what can only be described as a very Conservative coup.

No, Mr Leonard, who comes from the Left of the party and was a keen supporter of the previous UK leader Jeremy Corbyn, intends to carry on and fight the next Holyrood election in 2021. 

With, he says, the support and encouragement of new UK Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, who though he served in Mr Corbyn's shadow cabinet was never a Corbynite. 

The background is not auspicious. Mr Leonard has been leader north of the Border for almost three years. In that time Labour's lost all but one of its Westminster MPs, came fifth in last year's European elections and has slumped from about 25% in Holyrood constituency polling to just 14%, the most recent survey suggests..

As ever in Scottish politics the question of the constitution and the debate over independence looms large and ever present. 

Labour got into a bit of a tangle last year (some in the party used a far less polite term) when the then shadow chancellor, John McDonnell - another Corbyn supporter and ally of Mr Leonard - suggested the UK party would not oppose a second independence referendum.

Credit: PA

Although Mr McDonnell then appeared to change his mind, it made life difficult - make that even more difficult - for Mr Leonard. So I asked him what is the party's position now?He told me: "We are clearly saying that we are opposed to a second independence referendum.

"The entire focus and dedication of the next Scottish Parliament and the next Scottish Government should be on rebuilding the economy and revitalising our public services.

"It should be looking at how we can build a better care system, which has been exposed as being fragmented and weak.”

He added: "These are the priorities for the next five years - it's not independence, it's not constitutional change. We should not get bogged down in a debate for the next five in a wrangle between an SNP and Tory administration.

"What I'm saying is the position of the Scottish Labour is clear - we are going into next year's election saying we are standing on a platform saying we are opposing a second independence referendum."

Which is indeed clear, though there is a problem in that Sir Keir, in an interview with me last year, suggested the SNP would have a mandate for indyref2 if it won an outright majority in the Holyrood election.

That is something the new UK Labour will have to clarify - and no doubt will - to allow Labour to have a clear 'line to take', to use political operatives jargon, on the constitution.

The problem is that some in the party think this puts them in the position of swimming against the political tide, north of the Border. In danger of floundering, and even drowning.

Labour MSP Neil Findlay Tweeted this in response to my interview with Mr Leonard:

Mr Findlay comes from Mr Leonard's wing of the party, so his view is significant, though I do not think he is in the majority when it comes to Labour MSPs. 

However, his point is a serious one - that Labour need to be more responsive to the current political mood in Scotland, to be seen to be listening and not just being negative by being against something, always saying 'No'. That debate will continue.

In terms of leadership Mr Leonard was also clear. He did not have the support of many of his MSP colleagues when he was elected but he says he does now, and there appears no appetite at Holyrood that I can detect to 'do a Carlaw' on him.

He told me: "I was elected less than three years ago with a strong mandate from the members to lead the party into next year's election.

"We had a period where we had five leaders in six years and the Tories have now had three leaders in one year in Scotland.

"I think that people are looking for consistency, they are looking for stability, they are looking for a clear message from the Scottish Labour party and I intend to get out there to campaign for every vote."

Jim Depster Credit: ITV News

Richard Leonard has also had to grapple with local issues, including the continuing suspension of a councillor who admitted making Islamophobic comments about Scottish Government minister Humza Yousaf.

Jim Dempster was suspended from the party almost two and a half years ago, however although he admitted making "offensive" comments, the Labour Party's investigation has still not concluded. 

Mr Leonard told me he was "frustrated" there was still no resolution, but that Cllr Dempster "plays no part in the Labour group in Dumfries and Galloway Council. He doesn't play a part in the Labour Party locally". 

The Scottish Labour leader of Dumfries and Galloway Council, Elaine Murray, says although Cllr Dempster does not attend Labour Party meetings, he remains a member of the council administration and "retains his special responsibilities". 

She added the local party considers it a "disgrace" that Labour has still not concluded the investigation.