The Scottish Labour leader, Richard Leonard, is under intense pressure to quit after senior MSPs said the party faced “catastrophic defeat” in next year’s Holyrood elections.
A growing revolt against his leadership became public on Wednesday morning when James Kelly, a veteran Labour MSP, resigned as the party’s justice spokesman in the Scottish parliament in protest at Leonard’s refusal to stand down.
Two other MSPs, Jenny Marra and Daniel Johnson, backed Kelly publicly by calling on Leonard to resign, citing Scottish Labour’s dire poll ratings and Leonard’s very low public profile seven months before the Holyrood elections.
Speaking on BBC Radio Scotland on Wednesday morning, Kelly said: “The party’s fortunes are declining rather than improving; that puts us in a perilous state going into next year’s elections. I don’t have any confidence in him to turn it round, so I think the best thing for Richard to do is to stand down as leader.”
Echoing language used by Marra, Kelly added: “I’m not prepared to sit back and look at a catastrophic defeat.
“It’s totally unacceptable: we’re at 14% in the polls and more than half the public don’t have a view on the party leader. He has a negative rating among our own supporters. You can’t ignore those facts.”
Speaking after Kelly’s interview, Johnson said: “We have to change leadership. Frankly we’re looking at a complete calamity for the Scottish Labour party [in May’s election].” Johnson said a significant number of MSPs agreed.
After watching the SNP’s poll ratings soar to 55% over the summer, Kelly had led a delegation of MSPs to see Leonard two weeks ago to urge him to stand down.
Those polls had led the Scottish Conservatives to suddenly replace Jackson Carlaw as leader. Leonard’s critics fear the Tories will rebound, turning next May’s election into a two-horse race between the SNP and the Tories.
Leonard’s lengthy question to Sturgeon “was poorly conceived, poorly executed and poorly scripted”, said one Labour MSP. “I just don’t understand how he could have gone through with that.”
A Labour spokesman said Leonard would not resign. “He’s staying,” he said.
In a statement prepared on Tuesday evening after learning that Marra had called for his resignation, Leonard said: “It is deeply disappointing that disgruntled MSPs who never supported my leadership would choose the day when the Scottish government finally accepted a Labour policy demand of 10 years – for a national care service – to try and wage an internal war.”
Leonard implied the rebels now faced being deselected. He said he would lead the party into next year’s election and campaign for jobs guarantees, a green new deal and the national care service.
“If any party representative thinks an internal faction fight is more important than this agenda, they will have to answer to the party members and the voters whom we serve,” he said.
Kelly and Johnson denied they had never supported his leadership. They said they had wanted him to succeed, but after three years in charge he had failed to revive the party’s fortunes. His critics say Leonard had repeatedly failed to take their advice or offers of new policies.
One source said their concerns were shared by the UK party, but Sir Keir Starmer, the UK leader, felt unable to intervene in an internal matter for the Scottish party. That would be seen as proof it was controlled by London, thus playing into Sturgeon’s hands.