back to top

Corbyn Supporters In Scottish Labour Are Running A Grassroots Campaign To Make Their Candidate Leader

"Unless we have a leader more closely aligned with the UK party, that wee bit of traction we have could easily be arrested," a Momentum leader told BuzzFeed News.

Originally posted on
Updated on
Andrew Milligan / PA Archive/PA Images

Groups and figures on Scottish Labour's left wing are aiming to replicate Jeremy Corbyn's successful leadership elections to put a pro-Corbyn candidate at the head of the Scottish party, they have told BuzzFeed News.

Scottish Momentum groups, the Campaign for Socialism, and left-leaning Scottish Labour MSPs have all said they are determined to organise behind the vocally pro-Corbyn candidate Richard Leonard MSP to bring the aims and policies of the Scottish and UK leaderships much closer together.

The leadership election was sparked when former leader Kezia Dugdale – who didn't support Corbyn in his second leadership election – stepped down in August citing personal reasons, and will be contested between trade union veteran Leonard and former deputy leader Anas Sarwar MSP.

While both candidates have said they now support Corbyn, Sarwar was one of 13 Scottish Labour MSPs who signed an open letter to the UK Labour leader in July 2016 casting doubt on his credibility and calling on him to resign.

Leonard has consistently backed Corbyn's leadership and, as such, Corbyn supporters in Scottish Labour are already flocking behind his campaign, which is being advised by Simon Fletcher, who masterminded Corbyn's unexpected leadership victory in the summer of 2015.

Sources involved in the Leonard leadership bid told BuzzFeed News that, despite the campaign only officially beginning yesterday when nominations were handed in, over 200 people have signed up to volunteer.

Scottish Labour leadership candidate Richard Leonard.
Andrew Milligan / PA Wire/PA Images

Scottish Labour leadership candidate Richard Leonard.

The Leonard campaign aims to recreate the approach that saw Corbyn storm to victory in both 2015 and 2016 by encouraging new members to sign up to Labour and vote for their candidate, and to take part in a grassroots campaign with a heavy emphasis on social media.

"There’s clearly been an initial groundswell of people backing Richard and the initial buzz of support has primarily come from the left – though not entirely," a Leonard source told BuzzFeed News. "Richard has a long track record in the party and has done an enormous amount of things, but it's obvious the left very definitely see him as their candidate.

"We’re delighted Simon [Fletcher]'s on board. Before he signed up there was a very long conversation; he was not going to get involved if he didn’t think we could win. Is he going to replicate the Corbyn campaign? Yes, in the sense that it will be bottom-up and grassroots-led; the aim is not to get a million MPs backing him, it’s about mobilising the new enthusiasm that you’ve seen in the past few years."

Campaign figures believe that, from next Monday, they will have enough volunteers to staff phone-banking centres in Glasgow, Dundee, Edinburgh, and Aberdeen over the campaign, where they will be encouraging existing members to vote for Leonard and asking non-members to sign up and give their support.

Sources from the campaign have also stressed the importance of young people in aiding Leonard's efforts, noting that support for Labour in Scotland among the young doubled in the lead-up to the 2017 general election, rising from around just 19% in April to around 43% when people went to the polls in June.

Outside of the official Leonard campaign, the chair of Campaign for Socialism, which helped coordinate Corbyn's 2015 leadership push in Scotland, has formally endorsed Leonard and told BuzzFeed News they will also be attempting to copy some of the 2015 approach.

Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn and Scottish Labour's Kezia Dugdale outside the Scottish Parliament building in Edinburgh.
Danny Lawson / PA Archive/PA Images

Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn and Scottish Labour's Kezia Dugdale outside the Scottish Parliament building in Edinburgh.

"If we can recreate the kind of enthusiasm and energy that came from Corbyn’s campaign – engaging members and bringing new people into the party – it’s a chance to show people a side of Labour that they’ve either forgotten about or haven’t seen for a while," said Martyn Cook.

Cook added: "We’ve endorsed [Leonard]. What we’ll be doing now is encouraging our members to support his campaign, vote for him when it comes to it. We’re not formally involved with the Richard for Leader campaign. We’ll be speaking to our own members and asking them to get involved and show their support.

"Our position all along has been that Scottish Labour needed a change of emphasis: less on the constitution and more on Corbyn and the 'For the Many' manifesto. In our view, Richard is the candidate who has most consistently supported that position and is the most credible person to take that forward."

Mike Cowley, the co-convener of the Edinburgh Momentum group, told BuzzFeed News that it was clear to left-leaning members of Scottish Labour that Leonard represents the best continuation of Corbyn's relative success in June, and that Sarwar has failed to convince with his conversion to Corbynism.

Cowley said Momentum groups across Scotland, which work in association with the Campaign for Socialism north of the border, will be organising intimate events throughout the country where members and the public can meet Leonard, who is a relative unknown outside of the Scottish Labour movement.

Labour health spokesman Anas Sarwar (left) joins with demonstrators as they protest against closure of Lightburn Hospital in Glasgow.
David Cheskin / PA Wire/PA Images

Labour health spokesman Anas Sarwar (left) joins with demonstrators as they protest against closure of Lightburn Hospital in Glasgow.

"The job is unfinished – we’ve had a spike in popularity and a wee bit of traction in the general election but it was limited," said Cowley of June's Westminster election, where Labour gained six seats from the SNP. "Unless we have a leader more closely aligned with the UK party that wee bit of traction we have could easily be arrested – it’s a fragile thing.

"We need to acknowledge the reasons we improved and, for all Sarwar's qualities, he'd be a step backwards. The party is trying to do something different UK-wide and I’m not sure Anas is on board with the direction of travel."

Cowley added: "We’re going to get Richard into CLPs [constituency Labour parties] to speak to members, arrange our own public meetings, and speak to the trade unions and affiliates. We want to catalyse the same kind of excitement of Corbyn’s leadership campaigns.

"The thing about Corbyn, it wasn’t his charisma or personality but his ideas that excited people. Richard as an economist has some really exciting ideas and is very closely aligned to Corbyn, so we’re hoping to build on that."

Leonard has won limited support so far among parliamentary colleagues, with 11 out of 23 MSPs already publicly endorsing Sarwar. One MSP who does support Leonard, Neil Findlay, is considered to be Corbyn's closest ally in Scotland and ran for leadership in 2015 but was ultimately defeated by Jim Murphy.

Findlay told BuzzFeed News that, while it's an oversimplification to describe the contest as a battle between left and right, Leonard is the candidate who is most closely aligned with the values set out in Corbyn's election manifesto earlier in the year.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn speaking at a rally in Glasgow.
Andrew Milligan / PA Wire/PA Images

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn speaking at a rally in Glasgow.

"I hope to see Richard Leonard as first minister," said Findlay. "I think he’ll bring forward a programme for Labour to move into government, rooted in Labour values that people can recognise as Labour values, understand and empathise with, and support.

"We saw at the election, when Labour put forward a credible manifesto based on the principles many people in the party and Jeremy Corbyn have held for decades, then people respond to that. It’s when Labour strays from its longstanding principles and ideas that people think we’re not credible."

A source from the Leonard campaign added, given Leonard's background, they are expecting widespread support from trade unions. Leonard is a veteran of the Scottish trade union movement having been head of economics for the Scottish Trades Union Congress and an organiser for the GMB group.

"Affiliated trade union supporters have a vote and clearly Richard has a track record going back decades of delivering for working people, so we would expect a significant degree of support from there," said the campaign source. "We are very confident that Richard and the prospectus he puts forward is going to be the one that will appeal to trade unionists."

Although it's clear to many in Scottish Labour who Corbyn would prefer to win the election, Danielle Rowley MP, who is head of Leonard's campaign, told BuzzFeed News the Labour leader will not intervene: "Jeremy won't be involved in the leadership campaign – that's up to Scottish Labour and our members," she said.

"He already has a strong relationship with Scottish Labour, as shown on his recent visit to Scotland where he campaigned with Kez, myself, fellow elected members, our party members and got a fantastic reception."

A source in the Sarwar campaign told BuzzFeed News: “Our campaign is already up and running and we’ve been struggling to cope with the number of calls coming in from members offering to help.

“Momentum doesn’t seem to understand that this contest isn’t a referendum about Jeremy Corbyn. It’s about the future of Scottish Labour and getting Labour back into power in Holyrood, not just in Westminster.

“It’s clear that Momentum would like to turn Scottish Labour back into a branch office of the UK party. Scottish Labour members fought hard for our autonomy and won’t take kindly to that.”

Jamie Ross is a Scotland reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Edinburgh.

Contact Jamie Ross at

Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.