The fractious Scottish Labour leadership election has ended with leftwinger Richard Leonard’s campaign playing down his chances of pulling off a victory.
The poll closed at noon on Friday, with results due to be revealed on Saturday, after weeks of sometimes acrimonious spats between supporters of Leonard and those of rival Anas Sarwar.
At stake is not just the leadership of the party in Scotland, vacated by Kezia Dugdale this summer, but also a crucial seat on Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee (NEC).
During the race, Glasgow MSP Sarwar, seen as the more ‘centrist’ candidate, won the backing of big names such as current interim leader Jackie Baillie, Manchester and Liverpool Metro Mayors Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram and a swath of new party members.
Leonard, depicted as the more “pro-Corbyn” contender, won huge trade union backing and managed to sign up record numbers of union members to take part in the ballot.
But in an internal briefing note seen by HuffPost UK, Leonard’s campaign manager Simon Fletcher struck a decidedly downbeat note as he warned his candidate’s lower profile and lower turnout among trade unionists had ensured the race was too close to call.
Fletcher also pointed out that the party membership was historically less radical in Scotland, having preferred Owen Smith to Corbyn in 2016.
Other insiders pointed out that the all-electronic ballot, the first of its kind, had deterred older members who were more used to putting a paper postal vote.
The “close of poll note” reads:
“We are not going to predict the outcome. From the outset we have not briefed our numbers or offered a prediction.
We believe we have done everything possible in this campaign. Contrary to the presentation of Richard as the frontrunner, we have always believed that this is a massive stretch for a relatively less well-known candidate to deliver victory for a message of change.
In the most recent leadership election in Scotland last summer, Owen Smith secured 53.2 per cent to Jeremy Corbyn’s 46.8 per cent amongst the members. In the 2014 leadership election Neil Findlay – who is supporting Richard Leonard in this election - secured 32.7 per cent of the membership compared to 60.4 per cent to Jim Murphy.
Anas Sarwar began the campaign with a much higher-profile than Richard Leonard, and indeed is the former deputy leader of the Scottish Labour Party.
To get to a point of being a serious challenger for the Scottish Labour leadership is a major achievement and marks a significant development in the political and policy direction of the Scottish Labour Party.
In terms of the voting.
- Richard has a considerable amount of support amongst members who joined before, during and after the 2017 General Election; notably amongst the very many young people who are again joining the Labour Party. He has also shown that he can reach into previously existing members who are hungry for change in order to deliver electoral advance and connect with Labour’s political development at a UK level. This was reflected in the constituency party nominations.
- We believe that Anas has a strong showing amongst members who joined since the contest started.
- We know that affiliated supporters often have a lower turnout than members.
So the question could well come down to the balance between the different degrees of turnout.
Richard’s candidacy has shifted the terms of the framework in Scottish Labour, leading the whole debate in a more radical direction.
The result remains to be seen, and we make no predictions.
During the race, Sarwar came under attack for his family firm’s employment practices and faced questions over a large influx of new party members signed up. He also faced criticism for sending his son to the private school.
The Leonard campaign also had to fend off claims that it had broken rules in signing up thousands of trade unionists to take part in the election.
In a statement, Sarwar paid tribute to the members and trade unionists who had voted for him or volunteered on his campaign.
“I am immensely proud of leading a positive campaign, which put forward new, radical, bold policy ideas, and never forgot who our real opponents are: the SNP and the Tories.
“Our campaign to put Labour values at the heart of Scotland’s future galvanised and motivated thousands who want our party to fight harder against a Tory Brexit, be bolder in our ambition to lift children out of poverty, and be more radical with tax powers.
“If elected leader, I will work tirelessly to return us to power so that Scotland has a government that works for the many, not the few.”
Leonard said in a separate statement that his campaign had “shifted the debate in Scottish Labour for good”.
“Now is the time for the party to come together to take the fight to the SNP and the Tories, for all of those people in all of those communities who need Labour back in power.”