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Scottish Labour is embracing the politics of difference

Anas Sarwar’s party is recognising that distance from Westminster is a strength rather than a weakness.

By Chris Deerin

As Meatloaf didn’t quite put it, two out of six ain’t brilliant. Of the commitments included in Keir Starmer’s new pledge card, only a third have any real relevance to Scotland. This illustrates both devolved Britain’s diverse political structure and the difficulties the UK parties now have in campaigning as truly national institutions.

It’s not that many Scots would disagree with the contents of Starmer’s card. His intention to cut NHS waiting times and to recruit 6,500 new teachers will likely be echoed in some form or another by Scottish Labour, and indeed by the SNP and the Scottish Conservatives. But whoever is prime minister has no control over public services or their performance north of the border. 

Similarly, any crackdown on anti-social behaviour – another pledge – only counts as far as Berwick, because the justice system is devolved. The launch of a Border Security Command may appeal to Scots who fixate on illegal immigration, but refugees are hardly storming up the beaches of Carnoustie or Ullapool. 

And so, of the six pledges, only the plan to deliver economic stability, vague as that is, and to set up Great British Energy, which Starmer has committed to headquartering in Scotland, have any real traction. 

Starmer’s big election wheeze is therefore mainly an England-only moment. When Tony Blair issued his pledge card before the 1997 election, it was all a bit more straightforward. There was no such thing as a devolved parliament, and Scotland was run by a Scottish secretary – an MP from Westminster’s governing party – who split their time between Dover House in Whitehall and St Andrew’s House in Edinburgh. While Scotland’s public services and legal system had their own distinct identity and policy was decided by the Scottish Secretary and their junior ministerial team, the same party was always in control on both sides of the border. Whatever the UK government decided, went, and harmony usually reigned. Therefore, when Blair promised to cut class sizes to 30 or under, and to cut waiting lists, it was easy for Scottish Labour to fall into line.

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Holyrood has complicated matters considerably. Large chunks of the UK debate ahead of general elections don’t matter directly in Scotland any more. Whatever the result, many things in Scotland won’t change, including teacher numbers and the NHS, housing, transport and crime. Those are matters for the devolved election in 2026. This not only makes general elections trickier for the UK leaderships, but for their Scottish counterparts. 

One can see this in how Scottish Labour is approaching the policy debate. It has put the economy and the NHS at the top of its agenda, but commitments in both areas remain sparse. Jackie Baillie, the shadow health minister, has said she wants to cut the number of health boards in order to reduce cost and bureaucracy and improve efficiency, and to create a statutory national clinical council that will give medics a greater say in the development of health policy. Beyond this, Baillie is as yet largely restricting herself to pointing out the defects in the current system as governed by the SNP.

This can be a bit frustrating for those of us who want to see more of the meat, but it is probably smart, sensible politics. Scottish Labour needs to keep its powder dry ahead of 2026 – otherwise its better ideas might be stolen by the Nats, or they could lose any sense of freshness or impact among the electorate.

This applies across all policy areas. The Scottish parties are working to the Holyrood timetable, and need to hold back their best ideas or simply haven’t got around to fully forming them yet. In education, for example, which in Scotland is in desperate need of rigorous reform, Labour is some distance away from having a worked-through programme. 

The party’s senior team is grappling with what it admits is a disconnect in UK cycles and messaging. But it also increasingly sees this – perhaps through necessity – as an opportunity. One senior shadow cabinet member said: “Keir’s pledges on health and anti-social behaviour – are these directly relevant to Scotland? No. But do they speak to things going on in Scotland? Yes. We are having similar discussions, and a focus at the UK level does focus the mind on what’s going on up here.”

Labour sources point to the lack of debate over anti-social behaviour in Scotland. “I have constituents talking about kids in balaclavas zooming around on unlicensed motorbikes, or dealing drugs from the end of their street, but we’re not talking about that at a political level. Is the political discourse in Scotland reflecting public concern, or is the political class politely sidestepping things that are important in favour of ‘progressive’ obsessions?”

Labour also believes that the work being done by, for example, Wes Streeting on NHS reform can inform Scottish policies going into the Holyrood election. “The challenge of the next decade will be about reform and revitalisation of the health service,” said a shadow minister. “What Wes is doing, and will do in government, will have an impact on what we will do and in how we find solutions. It’s relevant to Scots that we have a government in the UK looking at those things, such as how we build an NHS fit for an older population.”

That still leaves space for Scotland to do things differently, and the politics behind what’s acceptable do not always align north and south of the border. But Labour is keen to push back against what it sees as an environment under the SNP that “is always reactive against the baseline of UK politics”, where, because a policy is adopted in England, it becomes automatically unwelcome at Holyrood.

With the general election likely to be held in the autumn, there will only be around 18 months until the Holyrood vote. Labour sources see this relatively short time span as allowing the Scottish party to ride the slipstream of a new government at Westminster. “Our interest is to secure the momentum of change, and to ensure that what’s being talked about at Westminster is also what’s being talked about in Scotland, even if there are differences,” said one.

These differences need not be a negative. In fact, they allow the party to address a key allegation made by the SNP – that Scottish Labour is merely a “branch office” of London. The significance of Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester and Sadiq Khan in London, both of whom have shown they are willing to go against their party leadership and pursue their own policy agendas, have changed the discussion within Labour about disagreement and difference. A Scottish Labour insider told me that, increasingly, “people like a party of grown-ups, and that we don’t have to fall out to have different points of view. We’ve not perfected it yet, but we’re learning to be a party that can absorb the fact that there can be more than one locus of leadership and make that a strength.”

Finding ways to make devolution work better for Scotland and Britain is a key obsession for Scottish Labour. In fact, it might be the biggest pledge of all.

[See also: What Kate Forbes’ return means for the SNP]

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