The leader of the Scottish Labour branch, Richard Leonard is often regarded as a comical figure of fun within the pro-independence community. His weekly contribution to First Minister’s Questions is often followed by a mixture of hilarity and exasperation as half of Scotland’s social media choruses “that’s devolved!” in response to whatever hobby horse he is atop of at the time. But is Mr Leonard really as dim as a two-watt bulb, or is he far cannier than he appears? Like his predecessor he’s keen on a prop or a story to help his claim along; after all a picture paints a thousands words, and with a friendly media only interested in rebroadcasting his claims and not scrutinising them they don’t need to stand up to rigorous examination. All that matters is that initial image for the morning press or that initial soundbite for the evening news, both of which are the happy hunting ground of the British nationalists in Scotland. It’s probably fair to say that Mr Leonard and his cronies are happy in that grey murk which exists in the general public’s mind regarding the roles of the parliaments, allowing him to echo whatever the party in England and Wales are particularly concerned about when it suits, even when it’s not entirely relevant.
I don’t believe that the bumbling clown persona which we have given him is an accurate one, and could lead us to write off all his efforts, to our own misfortune. At present there are a number of industrial disputes going on in Scotland. Some of the trade unions are affiliated to the Labour Party and will be working very closely with them, if not as a direct extension of them; however we cannot simply write off their activities as solely politically motivated. There are real concerns, and genuine demands being made by the trade unions on behalf of their members and it would be foolish of the independence movement to simply write these off as grievance politics. Many of those unions members are pro-independence and are members for the collective strength and protection they provide. Having said that of course, pro-indy trade unionists would be remiss to simply go along with the line being pursued by their unions unquestioningly, and must hold their own officials to account to ensure that their muscle is being used in the right manner, for the right reasons.
There are of course a number of unions who are not affiliated to the Labour Party, such as the RMT and the EIS. As an RMT member I am aware that there are many people at the top level of the union who would have us re-affiliate with Labour, a view not shared by the majority of members who recently rejected such an alliance. That of course does not prevent union officials being sympathetic to Labour and from pushing things as far as they can to give support to Labour where possible. There are many areas where they will share common cause, but members need to scrutinise these and decide whether they are valid reasons or not. I would imagine the same arrangements will exist within other unions, the EIS being the prime example at the moment. With teachers by and large earning much more than the average Scot, demands for a 10% pay increase seem unreasonable to most people, and with the EIS being courted by Mr Leonard and the Labour Party they are receiving a hostile response from many. While this should be of concern to EIS members it’s a win/win for Mr Leonard; should they win their claim he can bask in the glory of someone else’s efforts, should they fail he will have shown the trade unions that he’s on their side, and they will make sure their members know it.
He is using his trade union connections extremely effectively by being seen to attach himself to every industrial dispute he can at present, affiliated union or not. Labour MSP Neil Findlay recently stated that “The only progressive alliance Labour wants is with the trade unions” and this explains why Mr Leonard has been so keen to be seen to support trade union activities in Scotland. The unions have an active membership which Labour in Scotland doesn’t. For such a strategy to truly work though, for Labour to regain what they lost, they need to put independence to bed and win back former supporters. Sadly some union members have short memories. Glasgow City Council workers who were denied equal pay are now championed by the man who helped deny them, and march beside him to rally for something they should have had on his watch!
Pro independence trade unionists must take heed of Mr Leonard’s activities. It’s up to us not to allow our unions (in Scotland at any rate) merely to become the physical footprint of a Labour Party which simply doesn’t have the activists required to campaign themselves. We need to ensure that we do not simply write off the trade union movement to the Labour Party, and instead we must make a point of becoming active for Scotland within it, we must question what the union does in our collective name, and we must and ensure that officials within it are aware of the strength of independence support that exists in their ranks. This means being visible as independence campaigners on picket lines and days of action; will Mr Leonard and his activists be happy to share images of them campaigning next to workers with Yes t-shirts on? Somehow, I think not.
Perhaps in the near future we will have Scottish trade unions which truly represent their members and are not seen to be a tool of a particular political party. Until then, and so long as the Labour Party remains hostile to Scottish independence and pursues its policies from a British Nationalist standpoint then we must fight for Scotland from the inside of the trade unions and not against them.