We've all been having tremendous fun over the last week with the almost comical obscurity of Richard Leonard, a man who somehow stands on the brink of becoming leader of the third-largest party in the Scottish Parliament, in spite of the fact that nobody seems to know anything about him. Ever since the leadership election was triggered, I've been trying to find out personal details as basic as what age he is, and have so far drawn a blank. But we mustn't lose sight of the bigger picture here. I entirely stand by what I said on Twitter the other day -
"A rational party would hear the news that Anas Sarwar is standing for leader, and think 'OK, we must elect whoever stands against him'."
It looks like that will mean electing Leonard, and actually, Labour could probably do worse. At least he's relatively articulate and isn't another dreary Blairite clone. He does seem to be hopelessly stuck in the 1950s as far as Scottish identity and constitutional politics are concerned, but I suspect much the same is true of just about every other leading Scottish Labour figure as well. Because he's a Corbynite, it's doubtless only a matter of time before Owen Jones declares "the SNP should FEAR him", and there may be a tiny grain of truth in that in the sense that the SNP will be disappointed if Labour fail to make their customary mistake of electing the weakest candidate. (However, neither Leonard nor Sarwar are in remotely the same class as Nicola Sturgeon, or even Ruth Davidson for that matter, and assuming this is the last leadership election before 2021, it's suddenly very hard to imagine Labour posing much of a threat at the next Holyrood election.)
Is there any case at all to be made that Leonard could end up doing even worse than Sarwar would have done? In a rather ugly development, the Labour "moderates" are already zeroing in on Leonard's English accent as a potential issue, and I suspect clueless metrosplainers in the London media will be along any moment now to "warn" that the SNP will make hay with Leonard's Englishness. In reality, of course, nothing could be further from the truth - the SNP's vision for Scotland is of a country where there is no barrier to someone like Leonard holding the highest office. But, there again, the SNP do not control the prejudices of ordinary voters. The good news for Leonard is that the last time Scotland had political leaders with English accents (Malcolm Bruce and Ian Lang), they achieved tolerably good election results in the context of the period. It's conceivable that a Labour leader might face a slightly greater handicap, given that a successful Labour party is more reliant on working-class votes than either the Lib Dems or the Tories. But I doubt if it would be the enormous problem that some people are rather conveniently suggesting.
No, I think the bigger issue is that Leonard's left-wing credentials could herald the beginning of the end of the informal unionist alliance that harmed the SNP in June. We've begun to take it as read that the first priority of unionist voters will always be to keep the SNP out, but that could rapidly change if Tory supporters start to feel (rightly or wrongly) that a Corbyn premiership is a more immediate threat than an independent Scotland. In this year's election, even leaving aside the fact that a Labour victory seemed an extremely remote prospect, Tories in Scotland who voted tactically for Labour could tell themselves that they weren't 'really' voting for Corbyn, because Scottish Labour was still controlled by 'moderates' like Dugdale and Sarwar. It's a stretch to imagine that a Leonard leadership will result in those people doing a 180 degree turn and tactically voting for the SNP to keep Corbyn out, but they may well just revert to their natural home of the Tories, thus making it a little easier for the SNP to hold seats in former Labour heartlands.