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  1. Politics
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16 February 2024

Can Scottish Labour heal a fractured nation?

Anas Sarwar’s party could usher in a new era of collaborative politics with the Liberal Democrats and others.

By Chris Deerin

Scottish Labour needs you. Well, perhaps not you, but it is on the lookout for smart, centre-leftish, committed people to stand at the next Holyrood election.

The team around leader Anas Sarwar knows that the party stands to win many more seats in 2026, and sees this as an opportunity to raise the talent level in the parliamentary ranks. While Labour already has some big hitters on its front bench in Scotland, it doesn’t have enough of them. The hope is that it can attract individuals with the experience and quality to go straight into ministerial jobs.

The party’s long spell in the wilderness has had a malign impact on its representation beyond simply the basic numbers. Bright young and not-so-young things, who in Labour’s all-powerful heyday might have been drawn to Holyrood, have seen little to tempt them. They were unlikely to win a seat and, even if they did, would almost certainly face long years in opposition, impotent before the SNP juggernaut.

Now, with the prospect of a return to office in London and Edinburgh, senior figures are hoping for a 1997 effect, when everyone wanted to be in on the excitement. The magnetic effect of imminent power is already being felt in places. As Sarwar told me when I recently interviewed him, “it’s almost three years since I became leader and it’s safe to say we used to have to force ourselves into rooms. Now we’re being welcomed into lots of rooms.” Over the past year, as he puts it, the “exam question” posed to Scottish Labour in these rooms has changed from “are you a credible opposition?” to “what would you do differently if you form the government?”

Sarwar and his team must answer this question convincingly and in depth. They’re not there yet, but they’re working hard at it and drawing on as many ideas from outside the political bubble as they can. A new economic paper, released as Scottish Labour’s conference gets under way in Glasgow this weekend, promises reforms to the planning system, business rates and the gnarly, overcrowded enterprise network in pursuit of higher economic growth. A “Fresh Talent Initiative 2”, which would allow foreign students to stay on in Scotland if they can find a job, is in the works.

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Whitehall has been told that when Keir Starmer takes office he wants to make some quick offers – bribes might also be a fair word – to Scotland. This is in part to show that the terms of engagement have changed in a positive direction following years of Tory-SNP hostility, and in part to smooth Sarwar’s path to Bute House. The symbiotic link between Labour’s success at Westminster and at Holyrood is now well understood and deeply embedded in the party’s thinking.

While the odds look to be moving in Sarwar’s favour, he is wise to avoid complacency. The polls for Holyrood usually have the SNP narrowly ahead, though this may change as 2026 draws nearer. An overall majority for Labour is, in any case, extremely unlikely. In 25 years of devolution, only Alex Salmond’s SNP has achieved that, in 2011. 

So as well as building an attractive policy base, Labour will either have to contemplate forming a minority administration, with all the struggles that entails, or rebuild relations with the Liberal Democrats, its only feasible coalition partner. The Lib Dems played that role before, from 1999 to 2007 when Labour was last in power in Scotland, and the arrangement worked more smoothly than not.

That was then, though – an era of relative Liberal strength and popularity. Labour had won 56 of 129 seats in 1999 to the Lib Dems’ 17, providing a comfortable governing majority. The Lib Dem leader, Jim Wallace, was an unassuming but respected and substantial figure, who sat comfortably at the right hand of the great Donald Dewar and who negotiated a reasonable deal for his party – a commitment to free personal care, stronger freedom of information legislation than south of the border, and liberal reforms to land access and criminal justice.

It seems most likely that, if the numbers are there, Labour and the Lib Dems will join together. And if even that isn’t enough for a majority, they will probably be able to rely on an informal unionist pact, whereby the Tories will support the coalition’s budgets so that business can be done. Anything, in short, to get the SNP out.

This recalls a past ambition for Scottish politics. In the coalition agreement of 1999, Dewar and Wallace wrote about the fresh, collaborative approach of which Holyrood was meant to be a harbinger: “We recognise the challenges of the new politics. But let us also recognise the prizes: stable and co-operative government – accountable, close and responsive to the people; innovative government which is open, welcomes good ideas whatever their source, and encourages participation… [and] integrated government in which solutions are sought and found across departmental and interest-group boundaries. We believe these prizes mean more to the people of Scotland than party differences.”

That worked, for a while – even during Salmond’s first term from 2007-11, when he ran a minority administration and often leant on the Tories. But the past decade of SNP rule has seen Scotland become brutally divided, thanks to the endless, attritional constitutional warfare. Holyrood is now a theatre of pitched warfare – there is certainly no “innovative government, which is open, welcomes good ideas whatever their source”. Party differences are back, and more intense than ever.

Politics is politics, and elections must be won, so there was always an element of wishful thinking about a “new politics”. But Labour might just have the chance to improve the climate by constructing a more positive and united civic space, where difficult policies are delivered and owned by more than one party. The SNP would face its own period in the wilderness, with some hard thinking to do, and some of its younger parliamentary stars, such as Kate Forbes, Ben Macpherson and Tom Arthur, are instinctively collaborative and reform-minded.

Scotland is a small country. Harnessing its talent, whether outside or inside parliament, and of whatever stripe, would help end the long neglect of public services and the economy. It might also begin the healing process the nation still so badly needs.

[See also: Why Priti Patel is a good bet for the next Conservative leader]

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