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23 September 2021

Can Scottish Labour ever escape the political wilderness?

From the outside it looks and feels like Anas Sarwar’s party has simply vanished.

By Chris Deerin

Where has Scottish Labour gone? To the MSPs who have spent the four months since the election slogging their guts out at Holyrood, this may seem an odd and even unfair question. But from the outside it looks and feels like the party has simply vanished.

Absent in particular has been Anas Sarwar, the new leader who, only a few weeks into his post, made such a positive impression during this year’s election campaign. On TV and radio and in the debates, Sarwar felt like something fresh and much-needed: charismatic, charming, energetic and authentic; a man on a mission and, at last, just what Labour needed after more than a decade in the wilderness. Good for his party, good for the political debate, a teasing prospect of something different and aspirational.

Since then, though, Labour has been like an explosion in reverse – having briefly shaken up a stale and stagnant scene and titillated the political antennae, it has shrunk back to its pre-Sarwar state, mousily irrelevant, seemingly stuck for inspiration on how to make an impact, lost in the shadow of the mighty Nicola Sturgeon, the last knockings of Covid and the independence perma-war. It’s hard for the third-placed party to drive debate, dominate the news, or get much of a hearing at all.

In the end, the election didn’t go well, though that was largely expected by commentators and by Sarwar himself. The party fell from 24 seats to 22, a less precipitate drop than some feared: when Sarwar became leader, Scottish Labour was on just 14 per cent in the polls, which would have left it with 15 MSPs.

He has mapped his leadership into four stages. The first was survival, which has been achieved. The next is establishing Labour and its policies as relevant to the lives of ordinary Scots, then becoming a credible opposition to the SNP, and finally a credible alternative government.

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It’s clear that bridging the gap between the first and second of these stages is a huge ask and that Labour may fall short, leaving Sarwar in limbo like so many of his recent predecessors. The task has not been made easier by a hardening in Scottish voters’ tendency to vote for the party that most closely represents their constitutional preference, which benefits the SNP and the Tories. Labour is desperate to move on from this endless indy debate, because it knows it suffers by comparison to the other two main parties, and because it knows the SNP are most vulnerable on their domestic record, though possibly not even there.

Nor is the performance of Labour at Westminster helping. Keir Starmer’s failure to open a poll lead against the loathed Boris Johnson, with Scotland facing a generation of Conservative rule at Westminster, aids the nationalist cause and denies voters even a hope that a Labour government may be on the horizon. The party’s continued squabbles over its internal workings looks like so much navel gazing. Scottish Labour needs a successful UK Labour to give it a lift. And UK Labour needs a successful Scottish Labour if the party is ever to return to power in London.  

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Scottish Labour sources point out that for all the political attention being given to the Red Wall constituencies in England, “the first red wall to fall was in Scotland”. There is anger at the perceived failures of the UK party too. “I accept we need to be better but I also think the UK party needs to be better,” says a source. “Until then they’re holding us back in Scotland.”

As Sarwar prepares for this weekend’s Labour conference, he will be focused on the prospect of a forthcoming general election. By then he will have had two to three years in the job and will need to show progress at the ballot box. The path to that outcome is not at all clear.

It remains the case that Scots are in no rush for a second referendum, but will continue to vote SNP. It’s also the case that, realistically, only Labour could replace the SNP as the devolved government, but show little sign of catching up. As long as the constitution dominates the debate, Scottish Labour will remain marooned.