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8 November 2023

What would Scottish Labour do?

As voters look for an alternative, it’s no longer enough for Anas Sarwar’s party to simply talk down the SNP.

By Chris Deerin

When I spoke to Humza Yousaf recently, he was scathing about his main opponents.

The First Minister admitted that Scottish Labour, which is now neck and neck in the polls with the SNP, “have a spring in their step – I don’t underestimate them at all.” However, he is clearly sharpening his party’s attack lines ahead of the general election and the 2026 Holyrood contest. “What I’m very confident of is that we can beat them in the battle of ideas,” he said. “I can’t think of a big idea from Scottish Labour or Anas Sarwar [the party leader], and you can get away with that for a little bit of time in opposition, but there comes a time when you’ve got to pick a side, you’ve got to articulate what it is you’re going to do, and I genuinely don’t think they have the depth of vision.”

Keir Starmer might currently be talking a good game about the importance of Scotland as he seeks to win office in Westminster, but as prime minister he would ultimately do what the Conservatives did before him and “not pay heed to Scotland”, Yousaf said. And, come 2026, Scottish Labour would have two years of a Westminster government’s failures hanging over it, as well as being able to boast about its successes. “I don’t think they’ve really realised that yet.”

I’m sure Sarwar would bridle at this characterisation, but it’s not a wholly unreasonable one. Like all oppositions, Labour has spent the past few years angrily opposing. There’s no point in throwing good policy ideas out there when you’re in no position to implement them, and when the government of the day might simply steal the best of them.

There has, of course, been much to oppose, as the SNP project has come off the rails and a succession of policies has unravelled. But we’re now getting to that time when people are starting to think about how they might cast their vote, and whether the other guys look up to it. Scottish voters have long made up their minds that the Tories must be ejected from Downing Street, but they are now also wondering whether the SNP has run its race, both in London and Edinburgh. The polls suggest an increasing number of them are deciding that this is in fact the case.

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However, as the general election draws closer – and for Scots there will be no break in electioneering between Starmer taking office and the Holyrood vote – the electorate will want to know more about what Scottish Labour would do with power. Talking down the Nats, however much they deserve it, will no longer be enough.

[See also: How could Labour rebels trigger a vote on Gaza]

This is one reason that Reform Scotland, the think tank of which I’m director, is hosting an event in Edinburgh on Wednesday evening with a group of senior figures from Scottish Labour’s front bench, MSPs and election candidates. There is huge interest in what Labour would do, and specifically in what it would do differently. The event was quickly sold out and has a hefty waiting list.

The main speaker will be Daniel Johnson, the party’s smart and respected spokesman on the economy, business and fair work. Johnson has spent months touring the rubber haggis circuit with Sarwar, talking to the business community and promising that Labour will pay much greater attention to the need for wealth creation and economic growth than the SNP has. The pair have been listening to the grumbles of businesses and working away at what their offer will look like. Our audience will expect to hear some detail.

We will hear too about the party’s plans for welfare and social justice. The SNP has emphasised its commitment to the poor, which is a hard thing to criticise during a severe cost-of-living crisis. But this has meant ever higher taxes on the middle classes to fund anti-poverty programmes, an approach which now seems to be stretching voters’ tolerance. The Nats have been less active in helping people to help themselves out of poverty, and thereby enabling generational change and improvement in family circumstances. So what would Labour do about that?

There are many more policy gaps that the party needs to begin to fill, and though its leaders are confident that they are in a position to do so, the audience members will no doubt pose some tough questions of their own. “We’re not going to just get in and continue doing what the SNP has been doing,” a senior shadow minister told me recently. “There’s no point in winning for its own sake. We have to use whatever political capital we have to make a real difference to people’s lives – to their incomes, their prospects, their healthcare and so on. We have to be willing to be unpopular and tackle the reforms the SNP has avoided for years.”

Let’s hope so. After 16 years, Scotland needs a change in devolved government – it would need one regardless of which party had been in office. But that change has to mean something more than simply a new name on the door of Bute House. So, Scottish Labour, here’s your chance to tell us about it.

[See also: Keir Starmer’s uneasy relationship with New Labour]

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