This is it, then. For Anas Sarwar, the general election of 2024 is not a prelim or any kind of trial run for the big exam that is Holyrood 2026. This is the year in which he must show that the hype and the polls are real.
The Scottish Labour leader knows this. If he is to have any chance of becoming first minister, he must first deliver at Westminster. Here, he is a hostage to his own success – Labour is widely predicted to win around half of the SNP’s seats. Anything significantly below that will be viewed as a disappointment and have uncertain consequences for Labour’s apparent momentum.
He is expected to deliver a result that will threaten Humza Yousaf’s leadership and provoke further SNP infighting. If Sarwar fails, and if Yousaf defies the “lame duck” charges, then the First Minister’s internal critics will eye a fifth term in government.
And the voters… well, the voters will have taken a closer look amid the heat and occasional light of a general election campaign, weighed Sarwar’s character and Labour’s merits, and sent a message: naw.
As top footballers like to say, if you’re not in it for the biggest games, for the cup finals, then you’ve no business being in it at all. Sarwar gives every impression of being match-fit, of having a team captain’s broad shoulders, of being personable, clever, inspiring, charismatic, witty when necessary – the stuff leadership is made of. But with all of this in his locker, he must now deliver victory.
Here’s the thing: Scottish Labour is not ready. I don’t mean this as an insult. We are more than two years away from the next Holyrood vote, and no opposition party should be expected to have all its answers and policies in place already. They are still at this stage largely in the business of opposing. But time is beginning to press, and the imminence of a general election means that voters will be looking for answers sooner than they might otherwise have been.
Sarwar has already let it be known that his two priorities are the economy and the NHS. These are good priorities, and the right ones (although education is banging hard on the door, and needs serious and urgent consideration). But beyond the declared focus on these areas, there remains detail to be filled in.
[See also: What would Scottish Labour do?]
As Kate Forbes, the SNP’s most dedicated reformer, wrote for my think tank Reform Scotland this week, “without urgent interventions there might not be an NHS to reform in a few decades”. She echoed the sentiments – almost the exact words – of Iain Kennedy, the chair of BMA Scotland, and Paul Gray, the highly respected former chief executive of NHS Scotland. The NHS is broken, and is breaking further with every passing month.
This short-termist Nationalist government has not risen to the challenge of difficult, long-term reform. Someone has to. Someone has to have a proper conversation with the Scottish people about what they can reasonably expect from a rationed, taxpayer-funded healthcare system, and what they cannot. Fresh direction is required around budgets, recruitment and retention, technology, illness prevention and more. The ideas around how to save the NHS – substantial, expert and sometimes contradictory – are numerous, but in the not-too-distant future a political leader will have to decide on which of them to adopt. Jackie Baillie, Labour’s shadow health secretary, is perhaps Holyrood’s most formidable and fearsome opposition politician, but she must now win public confidence in her ability to build as well as destroy.
Labour will have to break some taboos and disappoint some people. It will not be easy. But what’s the point in seeking to lead if you don’t have the guts to do the right thing? We’ve had too much of that in both London and Edinburgh recently.
At an event recently, I heard a group of Labour shadow ministers all but admit that they have yet to define their answers to key policy questions. I liked their honesty, and I like that they are seeking to canvass opinion and draw on the best available thinking.
But they have months rather than years in which to flesh out their offer to voters. As far as Scotland is concerned, a Westminster election may be more about issues such as the UK economy, immigration and foreign policy than devolved public services, but it is inevitable that one will flow into the other, and that this year’s contest will set the stage for Holyrood 2026.
The SNP has been the UK’s most formidable electoral machine for many years, easily clearing every hurdle in its path, but it is now a stuttering, flailing beast, its best days long behind it. The Scottish electorate is already casting around for a better, fresher alternative, and is about to laser in on the options. Is Anas Sarwar ready?