EDINBURGH (Reuters) - Scottish Labour elected Richard Leonard as its new leader on Saturday, cementing the control of Jeremy Corbyn over Britain’s opposition Labour Party north of the English border and - supporters hope - priming it to regain the political impetus.
Winning in left-leaning Scotland is key to a Labour bid to unseat conservative Theresa May as UK prime minister as she negotiates Britain’s exit from the European Union, and polls show that Corbyn is now within striking distance.
The choice of Leonard, 55, a supporter of Corbyn - Labour’s UK leader - may provide focus in a party fraught with infighting between Socialists and centrists. Leonard is the fourth leader since a 2014 Scottish independence referendum left it in disarray.
The announcement in Glasgow showed Leonard won 56.7 percent of the vote, defeating Anas Sarwar, who is seen as more distant from Corbyn.
“To be elected leader of the Scottish Labour Party, to lead our party as a movement for real change, as a movement for democracy and - yes - as a movement for socialism ... is a source of immense pride,” Leonard said in his victory speech.
Labour’s main opposition north of the border comes from the left-leaning pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP), and much of Labour’s natural territory has already been occupied by the SNP Scottish government, with policies like free university tuition and a planned Scottish national investment bank.
Leonard, originally from Yorkshire, has a Scottish trade union background, but has been a Scottish lawmaker for a relatively short time. He says it is unfair for him to be labelled a Corbynista because his views, such as progressive taxation and strong public ownership, have remained unchanged for three decades.
Sarwar has previously said that if he lost he would serve in Leonard’s Scottish parliamentary shadow cabinet.
Britain’s past Labour governments have relied heavily on Scotland’s seats to give them muscle in the 650-seat national parliament at Westminster, and as recently as 2010 the party had 41 from Scotland.
But they were almost wiped out by the SNP, falling to just one seat in the 2015 UK general election.
In June’s general election Scottish Labour did much better than expected, winning seven seats.
Leonard replaces Kezia Dugdale, who stepped down in August. Corbyn clashed with Dugdale earlier this year when he said he would “open discussions” over a second Scottish independence referendum.
Separately on Saturday it was announced that Dugdale was set to appear on the television reality show “I‘m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here”, drawing criticism from some Scottish parliamentarians.
Reporting by Elisabeth O'Leary; Additional reporting by James Davey; Editing by Andrew Bolton