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Can Scottish Labour seize its golden opportunity?

As the SNP implodes, Anas Sarwar is quietly ensuring his party is prepared for power.

By Chris Deerin

Anas Sarwar’s recent reshuffle of his shadow cabinet was largely overlooked amid the daily scandals engulfing the SNP. Still, it is worth returning to, as the Scottish Labour leader made decisions that could impact whether his party can take on and potentially defeat the embattled nationalists.

The key move was that of Michael Marra, one of Sarwar’s closest allies, from education to finance. There is more to this than might first be apparent. I understand that as well as taking an overview of his party’s spending commitments and priorities, Marra will have a key role overseeing policy. He will also be the “shadow minister for Good Morning Scotland”, Scotland’s equivalent of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, and a frontman for other crucial TV and radio spots.

The MSP for North East Scotland is still a relative newcomer to Holyrood, having only been elected in 2021, when he replaced his formidable sister Jenny. Michael, a forthright Dundonian (and nerveless veteran of that city’s bitter Labour-SNP battles) with a sharp intellect, strong work ethic and a gritty determination to restore Labour to pre-eminence in Scotland, has grown quickly and impressively. He is a proper politician, with many of the qualities associated with his party’s golden age. After being given the education brief shortly after his election, he studied the challenges facing the sector, consulted with experts and reformers, and soon established himself as a canny operator.

Scottish Labour has been accused of lacking strength in depth, and it’s true that its years in the Holyrood wilderness has left the talent pool somewhat thin. A party that was once a conveyor belt of prodigious talent has become an unpromising prospect for the gifted and ambitious.

[See also: Why did progressives ever fall for the SNP?]

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But its front rank is probably as good as it needs to be. Sarwar is a charismatic and tireless figurehead, who will enjoy more of the spotlight now the headline-hogging and all-powerful Nicola Sturgeon has been replaced by an obviously lesser successor in Humza Yousaf. The SNP’s permacrisis has opened up the real possibility of a significant Scottish Labour advance at next year’s Westminster election, followed by a serious run at ousting the Nats from power in Edinburgh in 2026. This ensures voters will pay more attention to the party and people that want to replace their long-standing SNP government.

As well as Marra, the redoubtable and seemingly electorally undefeatable Jackie Baillie, who is both deputy leader and shadow health secretary, has robustly held the SNP to account – there are more than a few ministerial ankles that bear the scars from her terrier-like approach to detail and corruption. Daniel Johnson, covering the economy and business, has a serious intellect and is building strong alliances in the private sector as he formulates policy.

Sarwar has replaced Marra at education with Pam Duncan-Glancy, her first major front-line role. She will have to shape up fast, because the SNP’s new Education Secretary, Jenny Gilruth, is showing some early signs of having something to her.

As an ex-modern studies teacher, Gilruth – whose wife is the former Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale – might just energise a brief that was dreadfully neglected under Sturgeon. In a speech earlier this week setting out his plans for government, Yousaf announced that Scotland would rejoin the Trends in International Mathematics and Science and Progress in International Reading Literacy studies, which the SNP withdrew from in 2010. This has long been demanded by education reformers and is a promising first step towards a more transparent approach to monitoring school performance.

If it’s only a start, at least it is one. Gilruth has further promised that an ongoing review of Scotland’s education institutions will amount to more than the rearranging of the deckchairs it has looked like being. There will be “real improvement” so that the organisations that replace the Scottish Qualifications Authority and Education Scotland “work better” for pupils and teachers, while there will be “an equitable, accessible, valid and reliable qualifications system for all”.

[See also: Should the Labour party forgive or forget Diane Abbott?]

We shall see. In an article for my think tank Reform Scotland this week, the education expert Professor Lindsay Paterson set out the deeper challenges facing the new education secretary, including the re-broadening and return of intellectual rigour to the curriculum, and a new seriousness towards apprenticeships and further education. If the SNP yet again shows it isn’t up to it, can Labour champion a courageous agenda of reform? Does it have the guts to shatter the norms of caution and avoidance set by Sturgeon?

The opportunity granted to Sarwar has come suddenly and unexpectedly, and it is genuine. A poll this week showed that Yousaf is so far failing to impress voters, with 39 per cent believing him to be incompetent compared with 26 per cent who hold the opposite view. He is regarded as weak by 45 per cent, with just 18 per cent seeing him as strong. The First Minister is viewed as out of touch with ordinary people by 44 per cent, and in touch by only 26 per cent.

These metrics, in a period during which any new leader might expect something of a honeymoon, will not be easy for Yousaf to overturn, even if he has the capacity to attempt it – public reputations are set quickly. And he will continue to be dogged by the police investigation and arrests over party funding for months to come. This might in itself prove enough to destroy the nationalist hegemony, but Sarwar would do himself and his party a favour if Labour was also clearly prepared for government at Holyrood. 

A unionist majority is an entirely possible, perhaps now even probable, outcome in 2026. A Labour-Lib Dem administration, with the Tories helping to pass its budgets, could seek to push the constitution to the fringes of the political debate. The prize is a huge one. Labour’s key players believe they are ready to seize it. Now they must convince the country.

[See also: Humza Yousaf’s troubled First Minister speech to Holyrood]

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